Originally created 12/03/01

Entrepreneurs conduct businesses from their homes



Robin Fisher Roffer left her marketing post with Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting System 11 years ago, eager to start her own business. She cashed in her company stock plan and began Big Fish Marketing out of her Atlanta apartment.

Today, Big Fish operates out of Ms. Roffer's Los Angeles home, and a smaller branch company, Little Pond Productions, is located in Atlanta. She also tours the country teaching people how to brand their home-based businesses.

Despite working with some of the biggest corporations in the country, she still entertains clients in her den.

"It's all part of a dream I had to combine family life with business life," she said. "And you know what? The businesses don't care. I work with Sony, AOL Time Warner, Discovery, Bloomberg - and none of them care whether or not I have a mahogany-paneled office in a fancy building."

It's a common sentiment among working Americans. About 24 million independent business owners operate out of the home, according to the American Association of Home-Based Businesses.

"And that number is growing," said Beverley Williams, the association's founder and president. "People have seen the stories. They've seen real-life people making a great living out of their home. They see that it's possible, and they realize they can do it."

Ms. Roffer said in the past few months she's seen rising interest in working out of the home: The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have rocked the priorities of our nation's entrepreneurs.

"All across the country, people are coming home," she said. "Since (the attacks), people are re-evaluating their lives, looking for meaning and putting families first. Last month alone, 500,000 people got laid off, and I believe a lot of them will start building businesses from home."

The Chronicle has chosen three local, low-overhead home-based businesses to profile, all exceptional in that they provide services once thought to be wholly unexceptional.

For some, keeping track of personal belongings, cooking or picking out a wardrobe constitute everyday drudgery. For these Augustans, they represent opportunity.

Momma's kitchen

Harriett McBride has spent the better part of the past 40 years in the kitchen. That's what happens to stay-at-home moms with 10 children.

A few months ago, with all but two of the youngsters grown up and out of school, Mrs. McBride began looking for a way to stay busy while supplementing her husband's income.

It didn't take her long to form Chef About Town, a meal-planning service that goes to a customer's home, cooks a week's worth of meals, cleans up afterward and freezes the meals in individual servings.

The service caters to young professionals tired of eating takeout, families with two working parents and "basically anyone who loves to eat good food but doesn't have the time to shop, cook and clean up afterward," Mrs. McBride said.

"The kids are in day care or school, and when mom and dad get home they're tired," she said. "This gives them a little bit more time together. They can come home and kick their shoes off and sit down and eat - and it smells like someone has been cooking all day."

Ten meals for two people cost $290. The last menu she prepared included pot roast, green beans, chicken cordon bleu, spinach salad, spinach and cheese quiche, carrots, peas, a fruit salad - all for just three days of meals.

A five-day meal plan includes a beef dish, two chicken dishes, a soup and a vegetarian dish. Every meal has a meat and at least two sides. Of course, that's just a suggestion - she'll cook whatever you want.

"I can do just about anything - Chinese, Italian, Cajun, French, Southern cooking," Mrs. McBride said. "If they have family recipes, I'll do my best to prepare a meal just like mom used to make. I can do whatever they want or come up with some good, balanced suggestions."

Janet Taylor, a local antique dealer who travels year-round, uses the service when she's out of town to make sure her two children eat right while she's away.

"The kids tend to go to Wendy's while I'm gone," she said. "This way, they get their vegetables, and their food is all fresh. She's got this smokehouse for beef and pork, and she makes great desserts and breads and, oh, it's just so good."

Mrs. McBride is assisted by her son Peter, a culinary student.

"I get an understanding of what she's been doing for the past 30 years," he said. "Just watching her enjoy it so much, and the instant gratification of seeing people love the food - that's as good as anything."

Chef About Town also caters parties, prepares lunches for people to take to work - anything pertaining to food and its eventual consumption.

"I don't think of it as all those years spent in the kitchen finally paying off - I love those years," Mrs. McBride said. "This is just their continuation."

Dressed to kill

Have trouble dressing yourself? Anna Edry wants to help.

Not literally, of course, but Ms. Edry will examine your wardrobe, eliminate what's old or out of style, suggest possible outfits with what's left and even go shopping with you.

Ms. Edry is a professional wardrobe consultant. She got the idea while working as a sales representative at Summerville Rags.

"My customers kept saying they wanted to take me home with them," she said. "I thought: 'This is an opportunity."'

The 20-year-old studies psychology at Augusta State University and works as a sales associate for Dillard's, but she has a handful of steady clients who rely on her judgment to keep them in the latest style.

"It saves me time and money," said Lanie Wilson, a client of Ms. Edry for more than a year. "She coordinates my wardrobe; she adds accessories. If I need a red turtleneck sweater, I can pay her and she knows where to go for the best quality and the best price in town."

When Ms. Wilson returned to the work force after a 13-year absence, Ms. Edry helped her convert her wardrobe from leisure to professional.

It isn't always easy. A session can last anywhere from three to seven hours at $25 per hour. Ms. Edry said the initial evaluation is the hardest part.

"A lot of people have things they have to lose 20 pounds to wear, or they spent $200 on something three years ago that doesn't look good now," Ms. Edry said. "Closets are so subjective. Each outfit has memories, associations - but I'm totally objective. I'll tell you what looks good and what doesn't without any history to cloud my judgment."

After trimming the excess, Ms. Edry evaluates what's left. If the basics are missing, she goes shopping. Some of Ms. Edry's clients just give her the credit card and a key to the house; some accompany her to the department stores. Regardless, Ms. Edry is selling something many career women need but don't have the time to hone: fashion sense.

Once Ms. Edry knows her clients' closets, she becomes their constant consultant. She buys clothes for her clients while she's out shopping for herself. She makes them lists of what's trendy. She shows people how to create a wardrobe, as opposed to just buying an outfit.

"It's not how much money you spend - it's if you know how to combine and where to shop," she said. "People don't like to admit they don't know what to wear, but some are too busy to keep up on the styles and trends and mix and match with everything they already own. So why not have a professional do it for you?"

Taking stock

Anyone who owns a home is likely familiar with the intricacies of fire and theft insurance - coverage that all homeowners need but hope they never have to use.

Hephzibah native Larry Steverson has developed Home Inventory Specialists, an inventory service to assist homeowners with insurance claims or for identification purposes with the police department.

The business ensures its customers receive a fair settlement from insurance companies.

"If you make a claim, it's up to you to prove what you lost," Mr. Steverson said. "Can you imagine trying to reconstruct the contents of your home after a fire? Or after being burgled? You're dealing with enough grief as it is."

Home Inventory Specialists uses video, digital photos and exhaustive manual cataloging for every room in the house. Afterward, the video is put on a VHS tape, the digital photos are put on CD, the comprehensive list is transferred to a floppy disk, and everything is turned over to the client.

On request, the company will keep backups of the information for a year.

Mr. Steverson starts by reviewing the client's insurance policy, noting any items with extra coverage, such as art, jewels, china or an expensive gun collection.

He then videotapes every item in every room. The digital camera is used for the more expensive items.

Once that's done, he takes a handwritten inventory of the contents of each room. The entire process takes about three hours. Clients have the option of renewing their inventory each year, and can call, e-mail or fax any information regarding new purchases.

"If you get an inventory and five years from now your house burns down, it's hard to prove to the insurance company what all you still had and what all you bought in the meantime," Mr. Steverson said.

Customers receive a written guarantee of confidentiality that the information will not be sold or given to anyone else. The business is bonded and insured, but it's still a challenge for Mr. Steverson to make his clients feel comfortable.

"A home and what's inside it is very personal," he said. "You have to remain completely detached, and most people don't have the patience for it. Think about making a list of everything you own - it's not a fun task. But it could save you money and a lot of hassle down the road."

Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or john.banks@augustachronicle.com.