Update: A Home-Based Business — Your Ticket to The Boonies

JWR’s Introductory Note: This article is an update and substantial expansion to a piece that I wrote back in December of 2005.

The majority of SurvivalBlog readers that I talk and correspond with tell me that they live in cities or suburbs, but they would like to live full-time at a retreat in a rural area. Their complaint is almost always the same: “…but I’m not self-employed. I can’t afford to live in the country because I can’t find work there, and the nature of my work doesn’t allow telecommuting.” They feel stuck.

The recent Wu Flu pandemic proved that a huge number of office-setting jobs can indeed be handled from home. High-speed Internet now predominates, via DSL. And Starlink — which is much faster than DSL — will soon be rolling out in even the most remote parts of the United States. Starlink is now available in 32 countries, including Canada and Mexico. There are now videoconferencing tools like Skype, Zoom, GoTo Meeting, and Facetime. Many of these are available free of charge.

Don’t Just Move First, And Hope

Over the years I’ve seen lots of people “pull the plug” and move to the boonies with the hope that they’ll find local work once they get there. That usually doesn’t work. Folks find that most rural jobs typically pay little more than minimum wage and they are often informally reserved for folks that were born and raised in the area. Newcomers from the big city certainly don’t have hiring priority!

You Need Your Own Source of Income

My suggestion is to start a second and third income stream, with home-based businesses. Once you have one business started, then start another one. There are numerous advantages to this approach, namely:

  • You can get out of debt
  • You can generally build a business up gradually, so that you don’t need to quit your current occupation immediately.
  • By working at home you will have the time to homeschool your children and they will learn about how to operate a business.
  • You can live at your retreat full-time. This will contribute to your self-sufficiency since you will be there to tend to your garden, fruit/nut trees, and livestock.
  • If one of your home-based businesses fails, then you can fall back on the other.

Ideally, for someone that is preparedness-minded, a home-based business should be something that is virtually recession-proof, or possibly even depression-proof. Ask yourself: What are you good at? What knowledge or skills do you have that you can utilize?

Making Money in Hard Times

Next, consider which businesses will likely flourish even during hard economic times. Some good examples might include:

  • Mail order/Internet sales/eBay Auctioning of preparedness-related products.
  • Locksmithing
  • Gunsmithing
  • Accounting
  • Repair/refurbishment businesses. (In the old days, that would have meant radio repair, but these days, it is replacement screens for smartphones.)
  • Freelance writing.
  • Blogging (with paid advertising.) If you have knowledge about a niche industry or topic and there is currently no blog on the subject, then start your own!
  • Vlogging (Video blogging, again with paid advertising.) If you are photogenic and have an interesting lifestyle, then there is money to be made, even if you live in a remote corner of Idaho, or a remote corner of Alaska, or you live as a nomad.
  • Mail order/Internet sales of entertainment items. (When times get bad, people still set aside a sizable percentage of their income for “escape” from their troubles. For example, video rental shops did remarkably well during recessions. A more modern example is audiobooks.)
  • Burglar Alarm and Home Automation System installation.

Other home-based businesses seem to do well only in good economic times. These include:

  • Recruiting/Temporary Placement
  • Fine arts, crafts, and jewelry. Creating and marketing your own designs–not “assembly” for some scammer. (See below.)  In the 2020s, with the advent of Etsy.com, you have a nationwide marketplace. But unfortunately, Etsy also provides lots of competition.
  • Mail order/Internet sales/eBay Auctions of luxury items, collectibles, or other compact and lightweight “discretionary spending” items.
  • Personalized stationary and greeting cards. (Freelance artwork.)
  • Calligraphy.
  • Web Design.
Beware the scammers!

The fine folks at www.scambusters.org have compiled a “Top 10” list of common work-at-home and home-based business scams to beware of:

1. Craft Assembly
This scam encourages you to assemble toys, dolls, or other craft projects at home with the promise of high per-piece rates. All you have to do is pay a fee up-front for the starter kit… which includes instructions and parts. Sounds good? Well, once you finish assembling your first batch of crafts, you’ll be told by the company that they “don’t meet our specifications.”
In fact, even if you were a robot and did it perfectly, it would be impossible for you to meet their specifications. The scammer company is making money selling the starter kits — not selling the assembled product. So, you’re left with a set of assembled crafts… and no one to sell them to.

2. Medical Billing
In this scam, you pay $300-$900 for everything (supposedly) you need to start your own medical billing service at home. You’re promised state-of-the-art medical billing software, as well as a list of potential clients in your area.
What you’re not told is that most medical clinics process their own bills, or outsource the processing to firms, not individuals. Your software may not meet their specifications, and often the lists of “potential clients” are outdated or just plain wrong.
As usual, trying to get a refund from the medical billing company is like trying to get blood from a stone.

3. Email Processing
This is a twist on the classic “envelope stuffing scam” (see #10, below). For a low price ($50?) you can become a “highly-paid” email processor working “from the comfort of your own home.”
Now… what do you suppose an email processor does? If you have visions of forwarding or editing emails, forget it. What you get for your money are instructions on spamming the same ad you responded to in newsgroups and Web forums!
Think about it — they offer to pay you $25 per email processed — would any legitimate company pay that?

4. “A List of Companies Looking for Homeworkers!”
In this one, you pay a small fee for a list of companies looking for homeworkers just like you.
The only problem is that the list is usually a generic list of companies, companies that don’t take homeworkers, or companies that may have accepted homeworkers long, long ago. Don’t expect to get your money back with this one.

5. “Just Call This 1-900 Number For More Information…”
No need to spend too much time (or money) on this one. 1-900 numbers cost money to call, and that’s how the scammers make their profit. Save your money — don’t call a 1-900 number for more information about a supposed work-at-home job.

JWR’s Update for 2022:  There are now lots of other premium phone rate prefix scams, though some have been stopped though legislation. The Infogalactic Wiki notes:  “Various attempts have been made by vendors to circumvent these protections by using Caribbean or other international numbers outside Federal Communications Commission jurisdiction to bill US telephone subscribers; the former +1-809 countries were popular as their North American Numbering Plan format numbers look domestic but are not.”

The Infogalactic Wiki also notes:  “SMS (texting) also has a feature for premium rate services. They generally do not use 900 numbers, but instead use five-digit and six-digit numbers, shorter than a telephone number.”

6. Typing At Home
If you use the Internet a lot, then odds are that you’re probably a good typist. How better to capitalize on it than making money by typing at home? Here’s how it works: After sending the fee to the scammer for “more information,” you receive a disk and printed information that tells you to place home typist ads and sell copies of the disk to the suckers who reply to you. Like #8, this scam tries to turn you into a scammer!

7. “Turn Your Computer Into a Money-Making Machine!”
Well, this one’s at least half-true. To be completely true, it should read: “Turn your computer into a money-making machine… for spammers!”
This is much the same spam as #5, above. Once you pay your money, you’ll be sent instructions on how to place ads and pull in suckers to “turn their computers into money-making machines.”

8. Multi-Level Marketing (MLM)
If you’ve heard of network marketing (like Amway), then you know that there are legitimate MLM businesses based on agents selling products or services. One big problem with MLMs, though, is when the pyramid and the ladder-climbing become more important than selling the actual product or service. If the MLM business opportunity is all about finding new recruits rather than selling products or services, beware: The Federal Trade Commission may consider it to be a pyramid scheme… and not only can you lose all your money, but you can be charged with fraud, too!

We saw an interesting MLM scam recently: one MLM company advertised the product they were selling as FREE. The fine print, however, states that it is “free in the sense that you could be earning commissions and bonuses in excess of the cost of your monthly purchase of” the product. Does that sound like “free” to you?

9. Chain Letters/Emails (“Make Money Fast”)
If you’ve been on the Internet for any length of time, you’ve probably received or at least seen these chain emails. They promise that all you have to do is send the email along plus some money by mail to the top names on the list, then add your name to the bottom… and one day you’ll be a millionaire. Actually, the only thing you might be one day is prosecuted for fraud. This is a classic pyramid scheme, and most times the names in the chain emails are manipulated to make sure only the people at the top of the list (the true scammers) make any money. This scam should be called “Lose Money Fast” — and it’s illegal.

10. Envelope Stuffing
This is the classic work-at-home scam. It’s been around since the U.S. Depression of the 1930s, and it’s moved onto the Internet like a cockroach you just can’t eliminate. There are several variations, but here’s a sample: Much like #5 and #4 above, you are promised to be paid $1-2 for every envelope you stuff. All you have to do is send money and you’re guaranteed “up to 1,000 envelopes a week that you can stuff… with postage and address already affixed!” When you send your money, you get a short manual with flyer templates you’re supposed to put up around town, advertising yet another harebrained work-from-home scheme. And the pre-addressed, pre-paid envelopes? Well, when people see those flyers, all they have to do is send you $2.00 in a pre-addressed, pre-paid envelope. Then you stuff that envelope with another flyer and send it to them. Ingenious perhaps… but certainly illegal and unethical.

Suggestions from Blog Readers

SurvivalBlog readers had some suggestions on home-based “cottage industries”:

B.B. In Hawaii wrote:

“Here are some to home-based businesses to consider:

Professional Genealogist. See http://www.apgen.org/ . If it sounds interesting, do research on your own family to see if it’s your kind of thing. Start by going to http://www.familysearch.org/ , click on “Order/Download Products”, click on “Software Downloads–free”, download the first Personal Ancestral File (PAF) in the listing. PAF is as robust as any program that you’d pay money for–plus all genealogists know it well. You can offer your services to search in your local area. If you like being a detective you can have a lot of fun/make a bit of money.”

JWR Adds: The late Memsahib and I used PAF for organizing our genealogical research in he late 1980s and early 1990s. However, we switched to Reunion for our Apple Macintosh computers. We found that Reunion was easier to use, had more features, and most importantly it produced “clean” GEDCOM format files for export for use with other genealogy programs and word processing programs. (With the Mac version of PAF we had numerous file corruption problems with GEDCOM export files. But we’ve heard that the PC versions of PAF are less glitchy.)

 “Indexer. You receive manuscripts electronically and use special software to set up indexed words, concepts. If you are a careful reader (and especially if you smirk when you find a typo!) this may be for you. http://www.asindexing.org/site/indfaq.shtml.

Scopist. A scopist takes a court reporter’s dictation and transcribe it via special software into appropriate format for attorneys. Very interesting work–I suggest doing civil work rather than criminal because it can get pretty gruesome. Find scopists on the internet. Don’t spend bucks on a “school.” Instead, find a scopist who needs help (they like to go on vacations, too!) and volunteer to work for free to get trained. You’ll need a transcription machine to transfer info into the computer. Check your favorite attorney to find who the local scopists are and what the typical rates are for your area.

Grow and dry wildflowers. Search the web to see what’s hot, and what’s not. One of my daughters worked for a man with a piddly 1/2 acre lot who sold his stuff by mail throughout the country. Can you grow Baby’s Breath? I remember teenagers in my Church going to Eastern Washington to pick Baby’s Breath (your wife will know what this is) for florists. Here in Hawaii, you can buy a lei made from about 25 tennis-ball size orchids for $3! Too bad they can’t be shipped stateside. But here’s a clever graduation tradition–use Saran Wrap and twist in bite-size candies to make a candy lei (for graduation from 6th grade?). Advertise in the PTA.

Grow Lavender–it’s a big deal for growers in Washington State; if your climate can support it, then give it a look.

I know a guy who has a multi-acre rose-growing operation–he sells rose plants at Farmer’s Markets, and he must be making money because he’s there every weekend.

Which reminds me–check out the possibility of growing plants used in spices–do you know what you pay per pound for spices? Yikes!

Look into Square Foot Gardening, http://www.squarefootgardening.com/ , especially to become a supplier of garden-fresh produce for up-scale (or wanna-be upscale) restaurants. His book/DVD has good stuff and he tells you exactly how to pitch the produce to local places. And a plus–you get to learn all about intensive gardening.

Can you set yourself up to treat discarded food oil to make it useable in diesel engines and then supply the locals? It’s going to be more and more popular–but you’ll need a willing bunch of sources–maybe those same upscale restaurants?!

Bake whole wheat specialty breads for local outlets (organic food stores, chic restaurants). Hey, that reminds me: Timbales. You’ll have to hunt to find the ones that are saucer-sized. When I was a kid, the little concession stands had them hung all lined up on a horizontal stick–you plunked down your money (in those days a dime) and DaMan took one off, sifted powder sugar on it and away you went. Looks like a lot, but it’s mostly air. Easy to do; try it at home first, of course–start with the little timbale forms.

Okay, some of these aren’t quite home-based, but think outside the box. Maybe for a relatively small investment you can involve your kinds in a free-enterprise business effort. Like a little concession trailer outside the high school ball game where you’ll sell “shave-ice” (not sno-cones!!!–and NOT “shaveD ice!!!”). Then move it around town to all the public events. Get a license, pay the fees, and taxes–it makes America great!

Have you got a nice rural setting? People pay big bucks for wedding receptions in “different” (but not dirty) sites. Also, Public schools have money for taking kids on field trips–can you organize a ride on a hay wagon pulled by your tractor? Develop a maze. How about a couple of those dorky wood characters with a hole for a face, so people can get their picture taken as Ma/Pa Kettle–do it digitally and sell them a photo hot off your photo printer.

This reminds me; many people do very well by visiting schools and putting on assemblies–do you have/know/do something that can entertain/involve students? I’ve seen some very mediocre paid-for assemblies in my teaching days, so think about it.

Do you live in an interesting area? Do the locals know about places the casual visitors never see? Write up a must-see list and sell it on the Internet.

Does your hometown (or nearby town) have curbs in residential areas? Make a cardboard mask so you can block out an area of curb in front of a house and spray a black background; then use stencils to spray the house address on the blackened curb–firemen and cops love this idea–at $2 per sign, you can make quite a few bucks on a Saturday. Get the license! Pay the fees! Don’t harass the homeowner–get permission first.

Well, come to think of it, don’t just think outside the box–use the box itself!”

C.G. in NC suggested:

One comment on your recommendations for cottage industry jobs. I highly encourage people to learn as much about gunsmithing as possible, but it is very difficult to make a living at this trade. I worked five years part time for a self employed gunsmith who could not have made ends meet if he had not had another skill (made dentures for dentists) and a wife who worked. Our business always suffered when the economy dipped. Having a gun fixed is not a priority in non-SHTF times. And being a small time gunsmith means that you can’t afford to invest in expensive machinery, so most work is very labor intensive. Keeping a stock of parts for most common repairs is costly. There are probably more different kinds of guns than cars. Of course most of these problems can be circumvented with some time, work, and creativity, but only the sharpest and most experienced gunsmiths make a good living.

Another minor problem is that lots of people who come into your shop like guns and want to talk to you about them. You need to be courteous and encouraging about gun ownership, but this time spent talking pays zero per hour.

And of course to legally work on other people’s guns, you have to apply for and pay fees to get an FFL. That means that an ATF agent can come by and examine your records and inventory. Gunsmiths and FFL holders who work out of their homes are rapidly disappearing because of the general bias by the ATF against anyone who does not (or even who does) have a storefront with regular hours.

Gunsmithing is a great skill, and a wonderful hobby, but it’s not a very good way to make money I’m afraid. I hope others have had a more positive experience.”

JWR’s Comments: I recommend gunsmithing only if someone can develop a specialty such as engraving or gun restoration. You will need to gradually develop a reputation for expertise in a specialty that will attract business from clients all over the country. Note that there are now hundreds of small Cerakote and camouflaging dipping companies all over the country, so those opportunities have now mostly passed, unless you live in a rural region that does not already have a local “dipper.”

Ideally, you need to develop a specialty with your own imprimatur of skilled craftsmanship. If you can do that, then you will not even need to advertise and you’ll develop a long waiting list of customers. Here are a few examples:

What About Franchises?

From all that I’ve heard, most franchises and multi-level marketing schemes are not profitable unless you pick a great product or service, and you already have a strong background in sales. And most of these work best in medium-to-high population density regions, not out in the boonies. Oh, and beware of any franchise where you wouldn’t have a protected territory.

My general advice is that rather than a franchise, you will probably be better off starting your own business, making, retailing, or consulting about something where you can leverage your existing knowledge and/or experience. – JWR