Debra Cohen started Home Remedies, a home improvement contractor referral service, 20 years ago at an old farmhouse table in her basement. As word about the business grew, other people approached her and said, “What a great business idea! I would love to start something like that in my area.”
So Debra grew her company to additionally offer others the opportunity to set up a contractor referral business in their community. Debra has helped more than 400 people across the United States start their own home-based business, allowing them to work independently and connect top-quality contractors with homeowners in need. Here’s her story, as told to Nav.
It All Started With a Very Stubborn Pregnant Squirrel
There was no premeditated task [to starting this business]. I started out in recruiting and this job opportunity came along at a Spanish-language aviation magazine as the V.P. of client relations. It was a very good opportunity and I worked there for eight years. I did some writing, I did some networking with the writers, and I did some sales. I was travelling all over the world working for an aviation magazine. I left that job when I had my first daughter because I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.
My husband and I moved into our first home when I was pregnant and commuting into the city. I found it very hard to find good contractors, especially after a 40-plus-hour workweek. One night, we were in bed and heard something in our attic. We discovered we had a pregnant squirrel living in our attic. We started calling different pest control specialists and paid hundreds of dollars for a guy to take the squirrel away, but she kept coming back. She chewed through our attic fan!
Finally, we found a contractor who explained that when a pregnant squirrel gives birth in a house, she will do whatever she has to to get back. He took the squirrel over a body of water because squirrels can’t swim. She never came back and I was so appreciative. I said to him, “You’re incredible. We’ve had such bad experiences. If I were to get you work, would you be willing to pay me a commission?” He said he loved the idea, and that’s how Home Remedies was born. I figured there were a lot of contractors out there who do good work but don’t know how to promote themselves.
My skillset doing Home Remedies work isn’t that different from my job at the aviation magazine or in recruiting because it’s a networking business where I’m seeking out contractors, screening them, matching them with jobs, and promoting their services.
Financing the Business
I took a loan against my husband’s retirement savings account [to start the business]. I started on a shoestring budget. I set up an old farm table in my basement, got a refurbished fax machine, and I financed the purchase of a computer, which I was able to pay off in the first six months.
My accountant advised me early on that I should build credit, so I got an American Express card. (Editor’s Note: American Express is a Nav partner, but this doesn’t result in preferential editorial treatment.) I eventually got a merchant account so my contractors could pay me my commission with a credit card. Also, when I’m setting people up to start businesses, they sometimes don’t have startup money, so I offer them zero-percent financing if they pay in installments with a credit card.
I wouldn’t say my approach to managing cash flow is a science. It’s just my internal radar. When I get a commission check or when I have extra cash, I pay every bill and I put money away. When I know there’s a slow season coming up, I anticipate for that and try to keep a little bit of a cushion.
Do It Yourself? Know When to Say ‘No’
My biggest mistake has been hiring somebody else for something I knew I could do on my own. When I decided to make my business into a business opportunity for others, I hired a franchise consultant. I was paying her a ridiculous amount of money to tell her my operating procedures so her secretary could type them out on a piece of paper. That was a big waste. But, I caught it halfway through our contract. I ended up sitting with my own friend who went to Wharton and we created my business manual.
On the flip side of that is not hiring people when you should. For instance, I would never try tackling my taxes on my own, even though there’s plenty of opportunities with QuickBooks and whatnot. That’s not my expertise. I’ve tried to do graphic design stuff on my own; it’s a waste of my time. Better to hire a professional. You have to know where your skills lie and what you should outsource.
Duplicating my business model was a really smart decision because I could have tried to do it on my own when my business was exploding. I could have franchised it, which was a costly proposition. I figured out how to duplicate my business and provide opportunities to others without jeopardizing my work-life balance or my bank account.
Business Challenges and Rewards
The biggest challenge to running my business is always staying creative and current. It’s a challenge to always be looking for new opportunities and to always be promoting yourself in the marketplace.
Working from home is a tremendous reward. It’s great for work-life balance. Working for yourself, you have the flexibility and the independence. You have the ability to make a decision right then and there. When you’re in corporate America, there has to be a meeting, everyone has to agree on it, and there’s all these logistics. When you work for yourself, you can decide to take your company in any direction. There’s no red tape. You can act quickly when opportunities present themselves, and I think that is very satisfying.
Advice for Would-Be Business Owners
When you’re looking at different businesses, people tend to analyze the market, come up with a business plan and all these ideas. They look at other people doing something and say, “I could do that.”
You shouldn’t look outward. You need to look inward. You need to say, “What are my skills and what do I enjoy doing?” Because if you pick a business that doesn’t match your skill set, you’re doomed to failure.
The Future of Home Remedies
This is my 20-year anniversary, so that is a huge milestone for me. We just launched Aging in Place referrals, which are contractor referrals specifically for seniors who want to stay in their homes and live safely with zero-threshold doorways and that sort of thing. We’re setting up Aging in Place referral networks in addition to contractor referral networks all over the country.
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