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Is your business on the Highway or the Byway?

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=highway+signs&iid=259699″ src=”0256/8cc02d39-2a22-43c0-ba77-ab28011c1391.jpg?adImageId=8890792&imageId=259699″ width=”234″ height=”158″ /]We all can admit that 2010 is going to be an uphill climb for businesses of all kinds and sizes.  Doesn’t matter if you are a solo-preneur or a global conglomerate with 20,000 employees…it’s an uphill climb.  And maybe now, this week, maybe even today, you decide on which road you will travel: the highway or the byway.

The highway is a main public road that connects one town or city with another.  It’s an artery connecting people one to another making commerce both possible and efficient.  The byway is a little out-of-the-way side road.  It is little traveled and isn’t really meant to be a commercial artery.

There was a feature story in my newspaper’s business section this morning that showcased a small family business that I believe is on the highway.  To me, some of the signposts of being on the highway are:

  • a dream and passion for the business
  • determination to make the business work
  • great customer service
  • offering added value

The article by David Morrill, Contra Costa Times, is titled “Vacuum center owner on job 7 days a week,” [different title in online version].  In reading the article, I find that Mr. Raees Iqbal’s business, Western Vacuum & Sewing Center, is not only traveling on the highway, Mr. Iqbal carries all the signposts. [from the article]

  • a dream and passion for the business – “…‘It’s great to be able to offer something that every single house needs,’ he said. ‘We give them good dependable vacuum cleaners to help keep their homes clean….'”
  • a determination to make the business work – “…Raees Iqbal keeps the doors open seven days a week. And he works nearly every day…’Right now we are just trying to hang out here and make it work,” Iqbal said. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep it going….'”
  • great customer service – “…Iqbal knows his company needs to be on top of the industry. Every vacuum cleaner brand that comes in, he needs to be able to fix. If a customer needs a part, it has to be on the shelf.…”
  • offering added value – “…’We have to treat everybody like they’re VIP,’ he said….”

These signposts of being on the highway are no guarantee of success certainly.  They are, however, indicators that the business is making every effort to be alive and vibrant.  Just like Mr. Iqbal is quoted in Mr. Morrill’s story, he’s willing to do what he must to keep his business going.  The article is not a long or comprehensive one, but Mr. Morrill gave a pretty clear picture of one small business owner’s strategy for 2010:

  • be available to customers – keeping his store open 7 days a week is one way
  • provide needed services onsite – keeping up-to-date on his industry and keeping his shelves stocked with parts
  • have a customer-centered business – in his own words, “…treat everybody like they’re VIP….”
  • keep the dream alive – “‘…make sure that you are really passionate about what you want to do and have a whole lot of patience.…'”

Not to put too fine a point on it and turn this into nothing but flowery prose I think what’s important for all of us who own businesses and wish to remain in business this year is to determine what we’re going to be willing to do to stay on the highway and off the side roads: defining the dream and vision; knowing our industry and products and services inside and out; offering customers quality care and added value…and hanging in there.

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Marketing in 2010, Oh, and Happy Holidays

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=television+set&iid=7145195″ src=”2/3/7/b/Eager_Retailers_Greet_ce49.jpg?adImageId=8594827&imageId=7145195″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]I admit I’m jumping right into the making business predictions for 2010 and my topic will be marketing.  First, however, I want to give you my definition for marketing – it is not quite what others might say.

Marketing is telling everyone, everywhere:

  • what your business is, where it is, how to find it
  • what your product/service is, what it can do for the consumer, why they need it, why they want it
  • how your business differs from others that are similar – what your uniqueness’s are, what makes your business so very special
  • why the consumer should/ought to exchange their precious dollars and cents for your product/service

Marketing is telling everyone, everywhere in every way that people can and do receive information:

  • newspapers, magazines and direct mailers – the hard copy kind, the newsprint ink that smears on your fingers and the flyers, brochures and sales letters that come in the snail mail; AND the online versions: newspapers online, magazines online and email ads that come both solicited and unsolicited
  • television ads, radio ads – both via traditional tv and radio vehicles and online versions
  • internet banner ads, classified ad sites, display ad boxes on social media sites
  • social media relationship building
  • weblogs and forums and other self-publishing arenas where messages about anything and everything under the sun, moon and stars can be shared

A business’ marketing department is usually tasked with:

  • designing the message
  • crafting the message delivery system
  • delivering the message
  • measuring the results of both the message and the delivery system

My prediction about marketing for 2010 is that we all begin to realize that calendars are human conventions and that time is an amorphous mystery – we are actually calendar-less.  What 2010 is going to bring is already around us.  I came across a great article on Social Media Today that has some fantastic information on this very topic.  The article, “2010: The Year Marketing Dies…(Subtitled) Or at Least Marketing as We Know It!” by Augie Ray, has these points – among others – that I find worthy of comment here [from the article]: “… Of course, if marketing burns to the ground in 2010, a new and more powerful marketing will rise from the ashes.  The role of the new marketer [I picked the 3 of Mr. Ray’s 8 points that spoke to me the most]:

  1. Won’t be to plan bursts of communication on a yearlong calendar but to respond to and be part of the ever-changing dialog with consumers,
  2. Won’t be to count friends, page visits, eyeballs, readers, or viewers but to measure changes in consumer attitude and intent,
  3. Won’t be merely to talk at consumers but to listen and engage one to one….”

Point One I find significant and is one with which I totally agree – marketing is no longer a ‘January through December’ message plan – in fact I’d say this has been outmoded for some time now.  Consider that technology moves so quickly that in the electronics industry, as example, things are outmoded within a couple months – what good is a 12-month message plan for something that has a version 14.0 coming out only 6 weeks after version 1.0? [okay that’s exaggerated, but not by much].

I think what is important is to have a message that is not so much crafted as it is a photograph or hologram of what the product or service actually is and what it’s value actually could be to the end user.  In other words, not one message for niche A and a different message for niche B…the same message but told in as many ways as is relevant to the receiving system in place.

Point Two is very important and very misunderstood.  I’ll be the first to recommend to a business, large or small, that having a business profile on Facebook and LinkedIn is a good idea.  However, it is not the number of friends and contacts the profile has…rather it is the quality and the reason for putting up the profile.  You might have a business profile on Facebook because it is one place where you can link your Twitter updates and new blog posts…it gives you a wider population for sharing news and views.  Let’s say you launch a new product.  You write a post about it on the blog on your business website.  You announce the new product release in a Twitter update AND you tweet your blog post – both of these show up on your Facebook profile as new updates…in this tiny example you can see that three separate populations now know about your new product release.  The ROI will not be in numbers of page views or friends but in the chatter about your business and in sales.

Point Three is awesome.  Traditional marketing is indeed talking at the consumer.  New marketing is talking with the consumer; it is a conversation.  One cool way of marketing is being done online with the vehicle of reviews. Right now my husband is researching plasma television sets and blue ray players.  Yes, we have gone to the retail stores and looked at them and spoken with the salespeople.  He has read what the “experts” are saying about the various brands but what is having the greatest impact on him is what other consumers are sayingAmazon.com has used the review feature for some time and it is a great way to gauge what some people’s experiences are with products.  The example I’ve linked to here is for Paula Deen cookware – towards the bottom of the page are the consumer reviews.

I think what marketing needs is a change of clothing.  Instead of marketing being about selling your product or service, marketing ought to be about engaging the consumer in a conversation about his or her needs and wants and how your product or service can meet or fulfill that.  In 2010 pure sales won’t be enough.  Added value will be key.

Oh…and have a wonderful Holiday this year!  May 2010 bring you and yours many joys.

“Linda’s Business Blog” will be on vacation now until January 3 as our household is due to fill with family – I have a lot of cooking to do!

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2 things you ought to expect in customer service

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=salesman&iid=3751540″ src=”2/2/4/c/Consumer_Confidence_Index_c98c.jpg?adImageId=7966807&imageId=3751540″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]Let’s set a situation: a three-day event that includes an area with vendors booths.  You are an attendee to the event eager to purchase from several vendors who carry the merchandise you’re looking for.  This scenario is quite common:

  • cat and dog shows: cat and dog owners hope to garner ribbons and awards for their pets and vendors sell a variety of goods that have something to do with cats or dogs – sweatshirts with cat/dog images, cat/dog-shaped teapots, paintings, notecards, scratching posts, dog beds…a huge variety
  • model train expos – besides model train displays, vendors carry train cars, display setup materials and a host of items for sale that model train enthusiasts look for
  • outdoor art shows and festivals – these offer people the opportunity to view and enjoy art, much like an art museum experience, and also the chance to purchase art from the artists with booths at the show

There are plenty of other examples.  The point of this post is to explore what you, as a consumer, ought to expect in the way of customer service from a vendor.  Vendors are businesses.  The person in the booth either is the business owner himself or is a representative of a parent company.  In either case their desire is to sell merchandise.

As a customer entering a vendor booth you look around, look over the merchandise and make a selection.  What might you expect in the way of customer service from the vendor?  At minimum, in my opinion, the vendor should provide:

  1. attention– this is a golden opportunity at the point of sale between the vendor and the customer.  The customer has the potential of representing many more prospective customers.  Don’t rush the encounter.   And don’t pressure the customer.   Try to have the customer feel as though they are valued and not just another “sale.”
  2. respectbe gracious and courteous. Your customer has value to your business and deserves the niceties of please and thank you and is there any other way I may serve you?

Both of these expectations might not be what you thought I’d say.  Usually I say these things about customer service:

  • give your customers quality and value
  • give your customers enough information to make an informed decision as to whether to purchase the service or product

I mention attention and respect because this past weekend I did attend a two-day event which had many vendors selling a variety of merchandise in which I was interested.   The vendor in one of the booths had quite a bit of interesting things but I couldn’t get the person to give me the necessary information I needed to make a good purchase decision.  In fact, I couldn’t get the vendor to even acknowledge my presence.   There were only two vendors selling the merchandise I was looking for.  And in this booth especially were some items the other vendor didn’t have.  And I had cash money.  I was a paying customer.  Here’s why I left without buying:

  • no attention – the vendor stood talking with the only other person in the booth – who was the vendor of the adjoining booth…not even a customer
  • no respect – basic courtesy should have brought the vendor out of his stupor and to my side asking if I had any questions.  I actually had a couple pieces of merchandise in hand, but when it became clear I was going to get no service, I just put them back down and left the booth

Made me wonder if some business owners, whether with tiny businesses or huge businesses, feel they have an entitlement...entitlement to commerce if-you-will.  Some business owners convey an attitude of not needing any one particular person’s business because they have so many other customers.  I think this is a dangerous attitude to have for longterm business health.  Why?  One of the “rules” of commerce:

  • an unhappy customer or client is guaranteed to tell someone about his/her dissatisfaction…that alone could lose the unlucky business current and prospective clients and could hurt the business’ reputation

One thing important to remember, again my opinion only, is that our customers are the lifeblood of our business…it is basic mathmatics:

  • customer plus cash equals sales equates to profit equates to business health and future longevity in the marketplace

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Take 2 Beatles’ Songs and Call Me In the Morning

[picapp src=”0269/407bbd21-b363-4211-b3cb-5beddd8008f1.jpg?adImageId=7170919&imageId=273014″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]Does your business have you stuck in a rut?  Is the economy getting you down?  No one buying what you’re selling?  Are you wishing your product could have been included in the government’s [US] “cash for clunkers” program so that you could have raked in an influx of money?

  • “…The enormously successful CARS program helped consumers who turned in gas guzzlers buy nearly 700,000 more fuel efficient vehicles in fewer than 30 days. By late September the U.S. Department of Transportation paid all eligible and complete dealer transactions. “There can be no doubt that this program drummed up more business, for more people, in more places at a time when our economy needed help the most,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood….”

Are you wishing this was last year or even the year before?

  • “…Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
    Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
    Oh, I believe in yesterday….”
    opening lyrics for “Yesterday,” on the Beatles’ “Yesterday…and Today” album released 1966

Yet the business skies could be looking brighter.  Or maybe just less dark.  Denise O’Berry writes, “…the good news is that the talking heads are discussing a positive outlook on the horizon….” Denise, in her article, points to several surveys that reflect some hope for small business owners: “…the general consensus is that the economy is slightly better….” A great article for anyone looking for an upside for small business.

I would say that as a small or home-based business person you, like me [I am also a home-based business person] would judge a brighter horizon by these indicators:

  • sales of your products/services are not falling
  • sales of your products/services are increasing
  • fewer to no returns of products or cancellations of services
  • being able to pay your bills in full and on time
  • having enough profit to purchase raw materials
  • having enough profit for operation improvements [even if that is just some updated, new books for your business bookshelf]
  • daring to dream that in 2010 you’ll be able to expand either your product line, your service offerings, your marketing outreach or other improvements to your business

Denise concludes her article with: “…You’ll have to continue to keep a sharp eye on expenses and pay close attention to collecting your receivables to stay afloat. Even in a flush economy that’s how small business should operate to stay on the positive side of cash flow. Today’s economy just makes the challenge a bit tougher. But I know you can do it….”

To this I add the advice to keep doing what works; keep your dreams alive and know that this too shall pass.  Or, in the words of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” [Magical Mystery Tour album 1967]:

  • “…There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done….”
  • “…There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made….”
  • “…Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be….”

Song lyrics are always a bit mysterious, but I take these phrases in a positive, hopeful way.

 

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Customers want more than products and services

Customers purchase the products we sell.  Customers pay for the services our business provides as a product offering.  For instance, customers of an independent contractor for a cosmetic direct selling company will purchase products: lipsticks, blush, skin creams and other related items in the product line.  In another example, customers of an independent consultant for an insurance direct selling company will purchase both a product (insurance package) and services (ongoing consultation).

Rarely, however, do customers only buy the product or the service.  Customers also want:

  • personal attention
  • ongoing relationship
  • loyalty
  • customer service

One very important way that any business can grow is by increasing its customer base and one way to do that is by customer referral.  A satisfied customer is likely to tell his or her family and friends about:

  1. a great product or service they’ve purchased
  2. the positive purchasing experience they enjoyed
  3. satisfactory follow-up customer service they’ve received

Personal Attention – this is a golden opportunity at the point of sale between the business person and the customer.  At this particular point in time, the customer is very important.  This customer has the potential of representing many more potential customers [those possible referrals].   During this transaction:

  • don’t rush the encounter; if this is a buying situation, take time to make sure the customer has all the information needed to make an informed buying decision: have you made the customer aware of all the color options?  Size options?  Flavors?  Any other information about the product(s) that could influence whether they purchase or not?  If this is a service, such as an insurance consultation, try to have the customer feel as though they are a valued contact and not just another “sale.”  Take time to get to know your customer: what are their goals and objectives for the consultation?  Have you given them enough information for them to receive full benefit from the consultation?
  • be gracious and courteous – this person has value to your business and deserves the niceties of please and thank you and is there any other way I may serve you?  All too often it is easy to forget that as business people we need our customers, they don’t need us…not specifically us unless we are the only business on the planet offering our products or services and even then they could always do without.

Ongoing Relationship – this concept is especially true of people who are independent contractors with direct selling companies…you rely on repeat business – you need your customers to buy-use-buy again your products and services.  This is also true of many professional types of businesses: doctors, lawyers, dentists.  As business owner, you want to develop an ongoing relationship with current customers:

  • check in with your customers at some time-frame after their purchase: (a) to make sure they don’t have any lingering questions; (b) don’t already need to buy more or upgrade or add to/on; (c) to let them know you appreciated their business.
  • if appropriate for your business, send your customer list holiday greeting cards, birthday or anniversary congratulations; also, remind your customers of annual appointments, or tune-ups or upgrades in service.

Loyalty – this is a concept we often think customers ought to have towards our business.  I propose that the opposite is true: we should be loyal to our customers.

  • alert your current customers to new offerings, improved products or services before anyone else will hear the news…give your customers the opportunity to purchase something new and/or improved first…even offer a discount if appropriate.  This will make your customers feel valued.
  • alert your customers to important changes in your business: location, times of available service, new ways of contact – maybe you have a website where they can purchase from your business.  Make sure your customers always have up-do-date and pertinent information regarding your business so they (a) feel as though you find them of value to your business and (b) they have the information they need to keep coming back as customers.  There is nothing worse than finding out that a longtime customer referred your business to a friend only to have the friend not be able to contact you because you neglected to keep the customer informed on a change of phone number, or website address or email address or physical location.

Customer Service – every business of every type and stripe needs excellent customer service protocols.  When a customer has an issue with your products or services they need to be able to get these issues resolved satisfactorily.  That old saw of the customer’s always right is not correct; however, customers deserve:

  • attention to problems with products and services– it’s never fun to have to make an exchange or refund a purchase price, but two things are important to remember: (1) a disgruntled customer will tell others about their dissatisfaction and could lose you both current customers and future customers and (2) your business’ reputation is on the line.  If you offer a refund policy then honor it; if you offer 24-hour service, then abide by it.
  • attention to shipping and delivery issues – make sure your business has a function built-in to deal with shipping and delivery mishaps.  This has to do with good faith.  For those businesses whose products are shipped and delivered by outside vendors, realize that the customer has paid for the products and in good faith expects that you will see they are delivered in a timely and safe manner.  When something goes wrong, offer a replacement.  Not only that, offer the replacement sent 2nd day air.  The point is to keep that good faith with your customer.  Again, its your business’ reputation on the line.

As business owners, we know that our customers are our life blood…without customers to purchase our goods and services we have no business.  Value your customers and see them as part of your family of commerce.

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Home-based business owners are solo-preneurs

“Hey mom,” offered my daughter over the phone recently, “did you know you were a solo-preneur?”  I, of course, had no way of knowing if she hyphenated ‘solo-preneur,’ and frankly I didn’t know she was aware of the concept.  But I should have as both my daughters are extremely bright and brilliant young women!

A note about being a Baby Boomer and mom to two extremely bright and brilliant young women…it’s a challenge!  Kim, the older of the two, attended and graduated from Chico State University in northern California getting her degree in music.  She then taught high school music [this included classroom, choirs and marching band] for 5 years.  Then along came Matthew.  Now she is the busy mother of a 2-year old, teaches piano in her home and has turned her creative muse to mosaic art – something she and I share.   Jenn, the younger, is an actress, just building her resume.  She has some impressive Indie work already and she and I are looking to do some kind of collaboration regarding my fiction novel…more to come about that.  Jenn has a mind sharper than an ancient samuri sword and continuously amazes and humbles me with her keen insights into politics and world affairs.  Both girls have always given me worthwhile input in my endeavors.  So, to have one of them offer her opinion that I, as the owner of a home-based business, am a solo-preneur – well, I had to run to my laptop and look that up.

I found what I think is the perfect definition of solo-preneur. [I hyphenate the word…but that’s me.]  Abacus Coaching Ltd. [find their homepage here] defines it as:

  • “An entrepreneur who works alone, “solo”, running their business single-handedly. They may use Associates or Contractors yet they have full responsibility for the running of their business.”

I love what Bryan Leslie, owner this business consultancy in the UK says about the responsibilities of being a solo-preneur: “…you are responsible for the following activities within your business, either by doing the work yourself, or by outsourcing a combination of your businesses primary, secondary and support functions….”

He lists these as Primary:

  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Operations
  • Customer Services

As Secondary:

  • Finance
  • Quality Control
  • Statistics
  • Continuous Improvement

As as Support Functions:

  • Research
  • Human Resources
  • Systems
  • Training and Development

This list seems overwhelming at first blush for the person who is going their business alone and does no outsourcing at all.  There are millions of small home-based businesses where every one of Bryan Leslie’s responsibilities are piled, one atop the other, on the lone soldier looking out over the battlefield of commerce.

However.  It’s do-able.  Being a solo-preneur requires certain gifts and skills:

  1. determination above all…the will “to do”
  2. diligence and discipline...keep at it
  3. a positive mental outlook that feeds the emotional engine…like the little train, tell yourself “I think I can,” then you’ll know you can and you will
  4. belief in your business and yourself…you had a big “why” that caused you to start your business in the first place; keep that dream alive and real and know that you are the best person to make it come to pass through the vehicle of the business that you chose to build

As a home-based business person, you can ask yourself:

  • Am I an entrepreneur? Someone who saw a need or an opportunity and through innovative thinking found a way to meet or fill that need or op?
  • Am I a small business owner? This is certainly so…you own and operate your business…there is no one else’s name on the dotted line.
  • Am I a business leader? Many business owners claim to be business leaders through the semantics of ownership…however, a leader carries the vision and sets the direction.  If you have given your business a vision and mission, then consider yourself a business leader.
  • Am I an innovator? Not everyone can see the possibilities of a home business; and not everyone can shoulder the responsibilities of being the leader, the manager and the worker bee all in one person.  So, yes, you are an innovator of your business.

Entrepreneur + small business owner + business leader + innovator equals solo-preneur in the world of the single-owner home-based business.

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A home-based business in the face of a trillion dollar deficit

In terms I can understand, deficit spending is when my back account has an overdraft charge [happened once]…I spent more money than I had…or if my credit card got max-ed out [happened once]…again, spending more money than I had coming in.  To me that is deficit spending.  And, for me the average Josephine citizen here in the good old U.S.A., I can only go so far on a deficit.  Even with a bank program for overdraft protection, a person can only over-draft by so much.  Also, when a credit card is max-ed, that’s it…you can’t use it anymore.  The average citizen can never achieve the lofty stratosphere of a trillion dollar deficit – it’s difficult to even imagine.  Yet the country [the U.S.] keeps on deficit-ing [this isn’t an actual word, but it works] and it’ll get worse.  This article in the Roanoke Times, dated yesterday and written by AP Economic writer Martin Crutsinger, makes these points:

  • “…Government revenues have fallen by 17.9 percent in the October-to-June period compared with a year ago. That reflects the severity of the current recession, which is one of the deepest in decades and the longest downturn in the post-World War II period. That has meant millions of people losing their jobs — and thus not paying payroll taxes into the government’s coffers — and a big drop in corporate tax collections as well….”
  • “…Government spending is being driven higher not only by the financial bailouts and the stimulus spending but also by what economists call “automatic stabilizers.”   That is spending that automatically occurs in times of economic troubles to help cushion the shock of a downturn.  The government is spending billions of dollars more on these expenditures — such things as food stamps and unemployment compensation for the millions of workers who have lost their jobs.  In all, government outlays are up 20.5 percent through the first nine months of this budget year compared to the same period a year ago….”

I mention these two points from the article because I wanted to point out two phrases in particular:

  1. “…That has meant millions of people losing their jobs — and thus not paying payroll taxes into the government’s coffers….
  2. “…such things as food stamps and unemployment compensation for the millions of workers who have lost their jobs….”

It may seem that the ordinary citizen can’t do anything about a trillion dollar deficit but I’m going to suggest that there is something the ordinary citizen can do.  I’m going to suggest that the ordinary citizen can start a home-based business to either get themselves off the unemployment rolls by employing themselves or start a home-based business as a hedge against possible job loss or to augment a current situation.

Losing your job is an awful thing.  In the past six years, my husband has been laid off twice – I know very well how frightening that is when you live in a society where every single thing costs money: the food you eat, the water you drink, the roof over your head…everything.  We do not live in a time or place where you can pack up the buckboard wagon and move on to another unclaimed area and try to live off the land…here all the land is taken.

Starting something new does take a few things:

  • courage and initiative
  • perseverance and determination
  • time and energy

Starting something new like a home-based business can make the difference between making a mortgage payment or not; buying groceries with money you’ve earned as opposed to utilizing state or federal funds through food stamps or other subsidy programs [thus becoming a drop in the deficit bucket].  Starting a home-based business can give you leverage and freedom and pride of accomplishment.

There are a great many companies out there that offer a wide variety of products and services that are conducive to becoming a home-based business.  One suggestion is to look at Direct Selling 411 – this site can get you started looking in the right direction and answer some basic questions.

Is having a home-based business for everyone?  Probably not, but I do think it is an option that anyone can consider.

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