Homegrown Businesses

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Is it possible to make a living working from home? Absolutely, say the following seven women entrepreneurs.

One in two American businesses is run from home these days, according to the Small Business Association, and it’s no wonder in the age of the Internet, laptop and BlackBerry. A growing number of them are headed up by women.

But it takes more than high-tech tools and a decent roof over one’s head to make a living from home, as the following success stories show. All seven women that we profile share a passion for their work. And all agree that the Sacramento region is fertile ground for home-based enterprises.

“There’s a very interesting start-up culture here that I never knew about before,” says Wendi Fontes, a Carmichael TV producer and publicist who has worked from home since 2006.

“Because of the economy and gas prices, companies are having to downsize and make changes,” she says. “But there’s still core work that needs to get done.”

There’s so much work that in some cases, women—including two you’re about to meet—have outgrown their home offices and relocated to the outside world.

Patricia Newman, 49 • Children’s author and magazine writer

When Patricia Newman started writing children’s books, she had little idea it would take more than research and writing. In truth, she had to learn business, marketing and self-promotion skills. The Carmichael resident also has had to learn a thing or two about patience. “It’s hard to sign a contract and then wait for a year while your book is sitting on an editor’s desk,” she says.

Background: Newman briefly taught remedial high school math, earned a master’s in computer science and developed software. The latter involved a lot of writing, as did her subsequent work as assistant director of the western regional office of her alma mater, Cornell University.

The spark: It wasn’t until Newman began reading her childhood favorites to her own son and daughter in the early 1990s that she decided to write books. “I thought, ‘Wait! I majored in child development. I know what makes kids tick.’ My mother-in-law suggested it and I didn’t have to think about it twice,” she recalls.

Gaining steam: Newman joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, attended conferences and learned the fine points of the publishing trade. Her first book was published in 2004. Jingle the Brass, a Junior Library Guild selection, lays out the railroad jargon of the 1920s. Newman got the idea after touring the Sacramento rail yards with a local museum docent.

Other titles: Two other titles—The Science of Play and Seasons Around the World—are in print. A fourth, Nugget on the Flight Deck, is in production. Nugget explores the lexicon of a naval carrier. Newman also contributes to children’s magazines and writes a regular column of interviews with other children’s authors.

No easy task: “People think that what I do is easy,” says Newman, speaking of her books. “But I challenge everyone to create a story, develop a character, create and solve a problem and do it all in 600 words or less.” Newman’s manuscripts undergo a dozen or more rewrites. When she speaks to school groups, she strings the 17 rejection letters she got for Jingle the Brass on the wall. Her point never fails to elicit a gasp.

Creating community: Newman maintains several networks to minimize the professional isolation. She remains a member of the SCBWI and often speaks at various conferences and workshops. She also meets regularly with a local critique group. “I find that vital because I am generally a very social person,” she says. “I need outside stimulation and, really, outside stimulation is where you get your good ideas.”

The bottom line: “No one goes into writing for children for the money,” says Newman, who earns a maximum of 68 cents per book but brings in additional income through magazine articles and speaking engagements.

Dawn Byers, 46 • Mono Mia Ltd. / Personalized gift items

Now that Dawn Byers has moved into a bona fide storefront, it’s tough to imagine how she contained her monogrammed-gift business in her Carmichael home for five years. “My husband is so happy to see it go away,” says Byers, who moved Mono Mia into a 500-square-foot space off Arden Way in June.

Background: Byers studied advertising and marketing at San Francisco State University. She worked at Macy’s and Nordstrom before becoming an ad agency media buyer. She quit the field when she and her family moved here from the Bay Area eight years ago.

Initial necessity: Byers says she searched in vain for a local place to get her towels monogrammed. She ultimately found a friend with a monogramming machine and, eventually, started selling personalized T-shirts as a side business.

Domestic approach: Byers and a partner began peddling monogrammed baby items, totes and handbags at local home shows. “That was the best way of getting our name out there,” she says. Then she launched “Drop-In Tuesdays,” displaying her goods in an extra room in her own home once a week.

Popular products: Mono Mia carries everything from chenille diaper covers and tooth fairy pillows to Byer’s best-seller, a collapsible picnic basket with room for oversized monogramming (in any of 12 fonts). Other items include travel bags, towel wraps and lunch bags (the black-sequined version is popular with real estate agents) and sterling silver jewelry.

Professional peeve: Inventory management. “That’s my biggest crux,” says Byers, who numbers her product lines at 60, “give or take 40.”

The bottom line: $65,000 in sales last year

Wendi Fontes, 42 • Creative IQ / TV production/public relations

Wendi Fontes learned to think on her feet and trust her gut after nearly two decades backstage in TV news. Those instincts have served her well the past 21/2 years. “The last year in particular has given me the confidence that I have a lot to offer and should be proud of that,” she says. “I am a valuable brand.”

Background: The Loretto High School alum worked on the assignment desks at News10 and, later, Channel 31, where she helped roll out “Good Day Sacramento.” She launched a similar TV morning show in Seattle before returning to Sacramento as managing editor of CW 31 and, eventually, CBS 13 when the two news operations merged.

Stay or go: During her second pregnancy, Fontes wrestled with whether to quit and stay home full time. Her ambivalence turned to certainty when daughter Amanda was born with health issues. But three months later, when Fontes’ marriage suddenly dissolved, she was forced to seek part-time work. Her first contract was with The Idea Factory, a local outfit that produces shows for HGTV, the DIY Network and other national channels.

Tables turned: Fontes learned a few things about public relations in her 18 years on the receiving end of outside story pitches. Now, she provides media coaching, writing and a host of other services to clients seeking news coverage. “I realized I have a body of knowledge that I can use outside of [TV] news,” Fontes explains.

OodleBoxTV: Fontes is a founder and managing partner of oodleBoxTV.com, a “how to” video website with home, garden and “good living” segments. It went online in spring 2007. Sacramento landscape designer Michael Glassman and TV tool gal Jackie Taylor are the site’s more visible talent.

Ground zero: Ground zero for Creative IQ, Fontes’ company, is a tidy office midway between the kitchen and her children’s bedrooms. From here, she oversees her PR contracts along with her work with Sacramento public TV station KVIE Channel 6. She is a part-time coordinating producer of “California Heartland,” researching segment topics and booking on-camera experts for the show.

Baby on board: “I learned that I really can work around my kids,” says Fontes, who toted her daughter, who’s now nearly 3, to Idea Factory meetings in a baby carrier in the early months. “It’s OK having to stay up until midnight because I got to go to [my 6-year-old son Tyler’s] karate class earlier in the day,” she continues. “That’s evolved as I’ve needed it to evolve.”

The bottom line: Fontes earns 35 percent less as her own boss than she did at her last television job.

Cynthia McCoy, 60 • A Pet’s World Academy for Pet Sitters, Aunt Cynthia’s Bed & Biscuit Inn

As an elementary school math teacher, Cynthia McCoy made her fifth graders draft mock business plans for their own pet-sitting services, mapping out profits and payroll for their fictitious companies. Little did she know then, but the Loomis woman one day would launch her own such endeavor and train others to become pet sitters through her Internet academy and television infomercials.

Background: McCoy retired from teaching in 1999. Soon after, a friend needed somebody to watch her dove and llama. “It all kind of gelled,” says the lifelong animal lover. McCoy began circulating press releases and brochures, and snagged her first job in April 2000. She earned $30 for tending two dogs. She set monthly goals and, by the end of the first year, she says, was earning $10,000 a month.

Fruitful fusion: Then came A Pet’s World Academy, a melding of McCoy’s teaching and pet-sitting know-how. She led Internet classes on business planning and marketing, produced a DVD on pet first aid and traveled around the country to teach other pet-sitting skills. She even was written up in The New York Times. “I knew I wanted to be on the cutting edge,” says McCoy, who earned a Woman on the Way award from the National Association of Women Business Owners in 2003.

Going cage-free: While on the road, McCoy visited a number of cage-free kennels and liked the concept. She was burned out on travel and bought a 2.8-acre parcel in Loomis in 2005. McCoy no longer pet sits but runs Aunt Cynthia’s Bed & Biscuit Inn, her own free-range boarding facility.

The infomercial: McCoy’s infomercial for her pet-sitting academy is expected to air this month, and the training DVDs have been in production all summer. She believes the market is ripe for customers, given Americans’ heightened interest in TV animal programming and high-quality pet care. “I always have known that if your passion and your heart are in it, you’ll be successful,” she says.

The bottom line: McCoy claims an income of $150,000 a year.

Annette Sanchez, 52 • “The Veggie-Peel” Inventor

Annette Sanchez was taking a mid-afternoon “Oprah” break in early 2007 when the Roseville property manager inadvertently became an entrepreneur. That day, Oprah Winfrey announced that she and the QVC network were searching for “The Next Big Idea.” Sanchez had just the product in mind: a vegetable peeler with a built-in chamber for peelings, something she came up with the year before after spotting a standard peeler on TV. “I was lying there thinking, ‘Why has no one improved upon this particular product?’ I ran downstairs and I just took a couple of business cards, taped them together and to a peeler, peeled a potato and found that the concept did work,” says Sanchez, who first experimented with various containers from a local crafts store before settling on her own acrylic cylinder.

Background: Sanchez has worked in human resources, payroll, real estate and property management over the years, most of it from a home office. “And now I’m an inventor. It’s the weirdest career change anyone can make,” she says. But it’s one where Sanchez is capitalizing on her lifelong quest for greater efficiency. “I’ve always had that kind of mind, where I’ve looked at things and tried to think of ways to do it better,” she says. “Even as a child. I can’t help it. My mind is constantly going.”

The Oprah connection: Sanchez answered Winfrey’s product call, flew to Chicago and presented her peeler. It was one of eight inventions chosen from among thousands of entries. Sanchez appeared on the show in the spring of 2007 and will probably do her first QVC spot this fall. In May, Sanchez formally presented The Veggie-Peel at the Las Vegas Gourmet Housewares Show. “By the time the holidays roll around, I think people are really going to know what this product is,” she says. “I am sure it’s going to be out there in some of the major stores.”

Dawn to dusk: A self-described workaholic, Sanchez couldn’t imagine working anywhere but home. “I start my day at 6:30 in the morning; you’ll be lucky to find me out of my office at 6:30 at night,” says Sanchez, who has some 15 other home products in development. “I can go into my office any time of the day or night and do work . . . and everything is at my fingertips.”

The bottom line: Sanchez prefers not to disclose.

Maria O’Neil, 46 • MO Graphics / Graphic design, marketing and printing

Maria O’Neil’s first home office was a computer desk jammed up against her bed where, by night, she would work while her husband slept. During the day, she’d be back at it with one to four of her young children playing at her feet. It took four years before O’Neil scored a separate room in a new house. By then, her business was in growth mode and she hired an administrative assistant. Today, she owns two office buildings in midtown, and uses the smartly decorated space at 23rd and Capitol as her headquarters.

Background: Though O’Neil’s college training was in computer science, she worked for a number of statewide trade associations after graduation. She produced fliers and other marketing materials on the job, becoming adept at design software. After her fourth child was born, it was cheaper to stay home than to find child care, she says. She opened her own studio at home with three clients, including the California Association of Realtors.

A leap forward: The design side established, a colleague prodded O’Neil to manage the production end for her clients as well, which meant securing printing and other vendors. MO Graphics works with paper suppliers, binderies and a host of other businesses throughout the country and overseas. “Almost everything has been referral based until the past eight or nine months,” O’Neil says. The company’s sales topped $1 million two years ago. The bulk of her clients are in real estate, though, and she is feeling the economic pinch.

The give-back: As her own boss, O’Neil is able to volunteer her company’s services to causes that are close to her heart such as St. Ignatius Parish, Friends of the River and her own West Point Rotary club. “[MO Graphics] has created a nice lifestyle for myself, but I feel like I’m also helping people, which I love.”

Role modeling: The children who once played at her feet are in high school and college now. O’Neil, who is divorced, loves that they’ve grown up alongside her business. “It has been a good thing for [them] to see that their mom is out there in a role of leadership and getting things done,” she says.

The bottom line: $1.2 million in sales last year  

Nancy Mallory, 45 • Mallory & Associates / Special events/public relations

Nancy Mallory was the first to turn the state Capitol pink in the name of breast cancer awareness, puts on one of Sacramento’s largest annual parades, frequently snags media coverage of her clients—and does all of the above from home. This brand of self-employment, finessed over 14 years, is not for everyone. “You have to ask yourself some hard questions: ‘Am I going to have the commitment to do what it’s going to take to have a successful business?’” she says.

Background: Mallory enjoyed staging events as an assistant china and crystal buyer for Weinstock’s. When the department store closed in the early 1990s, she worked at a public relations firm. She gained further experience as an intern to an area event planner and as the one-woman office staff at Studio Z Recording.

The buildup: Mallory spent two years preparing to step out on her own, even as her client list grew. The Sacramento Youth Symphony was her first customer, and she had a half-dozen more by the time she secured her computer, printer, letterhead and other tools. “It got a little cumbersome,” Mallory says of her ambitious roster. “When you start your business, you don’t think you have the luxury of saying ‘no.’”

A diverse clientele: Mallory has represented the B Street Theatre and the Delta King, Niello and the Old Sacramento Business Association. Among the events she has staged: the Dottie Awards, the Folsom Zoo Sanctuary’s Howl, Growl and Wine, and the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Old Sacramento.

A Capitol idea: Her most gratifying project, pro bono no less, was the push to string the north facade of the state Capitol with pink lights to publicize the Susan G. Komen Sacramento Race for the Cure. (Mallory was inspired by the Denver breast cancer awareness affiliate, which strung pink ribbons around its own state Capitol.) That was in 2005, and the Capitol has been lit pink every year since.

Home sweet office: At first, Mallory used an armoire in the guest bedroom of her Sacramento home. Now she has a larger office, thanks to a remodel. Leaving her work behind is an ongoing challenge. “One of my biggest struggles has been whether to have an office outside the home. I’ll continue to ask myself that question as needed,” says Mallory. “For the first 10 years, I lived to work. But as I’m getting older, I am getting much more methodical.”

The bottom line: Mallory prefers not to disclose.