Thursday, December 26, 2013

Starting up a Home-Based Craft or Kitchen Business

"You should sell that!"

Have you ever had anyone say that to you? Sometimes they emphatically add, "You could make a lot of money!"

Home-based businesses are on the rise because the economy is still struggling on and people are attempting to replace income lost from full- or even part-time incomes. Most people can cook, can, or bake, and many have some sort of crafting or woodworking ability that could be profitable under the right conditions. Browse any farmer's market on a warm fall afternoon - or Etsy anytime - and you'll see capitalism in full swing - vegetables, meats, baked goods, soaps and salves, coffee and teas, jewelry, carved items. leather goods and other crafts - a cornucopia of handmade products to choose from, created from the talent and spare time of a whole range of people.

But how easy is it to start one of these businesses? How much regulation is there and how many hoops do you have to jump through? It depends on type of product being sold. Crafts and jewelry, furniture and knick-knacks can be sold easily at craft shows, farmer's markets, or online. Starting this type of business would require the same first steps of starting any business: investigating your market and demand, determining your costs, making a business plan, and researching local laws. Any business owner should also acquire business insurance because of the current litigious atmosphere, but if you're selling felted animals, it's unlikely anyone will claim they were carcinogenic or in any other way harmful.  With food it gets more complicated.

Opening a small food-center business has a number of obvious pluses. You have a built-in customer base in the human race, as everyone needs to eat. Additionally, cooking can be done and done well by people who have little formal training or education. Most states have lately passed cottage food laws that allow for the sale of non-perishable foods. These generally include baked goods, jams and jellies, pickles and vinegars, dehydrated foods, nuts and candy - things that won't kill people if not made exactly right.  Jams are fruits preserved in sugar and pickles are preserved in vinegar - while they are canned, the processing isn't what preserves them.  Other jarred foods, such as canned vegetables and salsas have to be processed in a pressure canner to kill any and all bacteria.  Anything with meat and dairy also must be produced in a commercial kitchen that is up to code and regularly inspected. Some small businesses avoid real estate overhead by renting time in a commercial kitchen, but this, of course, is an additional expense.  If you want to sell food, you need to check state requirements carefully for feasability before you invest any money.

Finally, of late there has been considerable interest in herbalism, naturopathy, and medicines that are more naturally and organically made. Partly this interest is an outgrowth of the organic movement - the next step in green living - and partly it's a reaction to a medical system that is convoluted and out of the price range of whole swaths of the population. The sale of any sort of medicinal tonic or application can even more highly regulated than food, however.  Guidelines vary by state, but generally these products must be made in a commercial, regularly inspected kitchen. Business owners may be required to have a degree in herbal medicine as well. Degree or not, because they are not doctors, herbalists are not allowed to state what their salves, tinctures, and teas are supposed to help or even that they are medicine at all. An herbalist may have a great deal of experience treating ear infections with vinegar and garlic & mullein oil and may have success restoring ear wax-blocked hearing loss with hydrogen peroxide and glycerin, but because he is not a family physician or an audiologist, he is not allowed to make any claims or suggestions. An herbal business also will likely require additional liability insurance - another cost to consider.

Starting any sort of business requires a great deal of research as to the market and regulations, so be willing to put some time in.  There are a number of people making money selling all of the above products, but just because it looks easy doesn't mean it is.  Do your homework and then get excited about your home business venture.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The affordable, sustainable holiday office party

It's that time of year again.  Are you ready to celebrate your business's accomplishments and treat your employees to food, drink, and entertainment?  What if you're on a budget or if your business hasn't quite gotten out of the red and into the black yet?  Can you throw a great office party on a shoestring budget?

Americans have been living with affluenza symptoms for years, but it's important to realize that great parties don't depend on overindulgence or excess, they depend on people enjoying each others' company.  A well stocked table helps, but what people will really remember is time spent together.  Think of the best party you've ever been to.  Was it in some swanky venue with an open bar and a snooty maĆ®tre d'?  Probably not.  One of the better holiday parties I've gone to had no catering, no entertainment, and was light on the amenities.  It was in November 1993, and a group of American teachers were celebrating Thanksgiving together in a small Soviet dorm.  We scoured the local market for supplies, peeled our own potatoes, roasted our own small chicken, and laughed hysterically about the challenges we all had in common, swapping ideas on how to solve them.  It was a great time.  There was one tiny incident - a Russian girlfriend broke a bottle and tried to slit her wrist in the bathroom - but that's always the case, isn't it?  A holiday isn't complete without some drama.

The point is, you don't have to spend a lot of money and order a dumpster after in order to throw a great Christmas party for your coworkers.  You just need some creativity and cooperation.  Here are a few tips for a memorable, zero waste celebration:

Decorate with ornaments that can be used from year to year and then stored away.  A nice holiday tablecloth really dresses up a room, and pine cones can be gathered and then returned to their outdoor setting when the party is over.  Invite your employees to bring in their favorite holiday decorations and take a few minutes to have each one showcase hers and tell why it is important to her.  These can either be left at the office for the remainder of December or returned home after the party.

Do not use disposable plates, cutlery or napkins.  It's true, hardly anyone loves to do dirty dishes, but it also hasn't killed anybody yet to do it.  Back in the old days, before throwaway plates, how do you think people managed? They worked together.  They volunteered together.  After every potluck, that same group of ladies gathered in the kitchen and cleaned out the pots and pans while the men broke down the tables and put away chairs. They got to know each other better, and they worked off some of the calories they'd just eaten.  If your employees object to having to clean up after an office party, offer them a flex hour in compensation, to be used in the new year. It's nicer to eat with real cutlery and plates anyway, like civilized people.

Have your most detail oriented person plan the food, and order based on what will actually get eaten instead of what will fill up a table.  Better food in smaller quantities are better than lots of plates of food no one likes or bag after bag of chips that will be sampled and then thrown out.  After the party, invite people to bring home any extra food.  Ask them ahead of time to bring their own tupperware to make this easier.  Look into donating anything unopened to a food bank.  Anything else freeze and eat later.

Gift exchanges are largely unnecessary and can cause problems if the "rules" are not communicated well or some people are left out.  Skip the complimentary gift unless it's something your employees will genuinely want. Another way to think of this is: most generic gifts will be thrown away or, at best, re-gifted.  No one wants a Christmas tree ornament with your business logo on it.  If it's mass produced, it will eventually find its way into the trash.  Spend the money instead on a better cut of meat or raffling off some gift cards.  Or, if your employees approve, give the money that would have been used to a charity that can be mutually agreed upon.

Remember again this holiday season that people have enough "stuff."  What they do not have, and can never have enough of is time spent well, happily, with people they like.  Keeping that in mind will help you plan your party so that it will be less expensive but more enjoyable.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our readers at Small Business Excellence!