The stay-at-home mom as entrepreneur

Many women are leaving corporate halls for a new type of cottage industry

Howard Business

March 27, 2000|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

With a portable phone cradled on her shoulder, Jennifer Hutnik moved around the living room of her Columbia home, picking up toys, tossing dolls into their baskets and talking to prospective customers about cat-sitting and hostess services.

"I'm always doing several things at once, so it does get hectic," Hutnik said on a recent morning.

A former manager for Marriott Management Services, Hutnik left the corporate world about four years ago to open a business that would allow her to stay home with the family she was starting. She wanted to create a company that would offer variety, keep her outside and fill a need in her community, so she created Beck and Call, an errand service.

Dog-walking and pet-sitting constitute about 80 to 85 percent of Beck and Call's jobs. Each week, Hutnik and her employees visit more than 100 pets, such as Jake, a Weimaraner whose owners work and can't return to their River Hill home during the day to walk the dog. Beck and Call's other tasks include helping with parties, grocery shopping and picking up prescriptions and dry cleaning for those too busy to do it themselves.

"They just don't want to spend their time home with their families shopping or at the dry cleaners," she said of her clients.

Between the low start-up cost for this type of small business and the high demand for help with the nuts and bolts of daily life, the service sector of small businesses is growing, said Lisa Roberts, co-founder of Entrepreneurial Parent, a 1,000-member on-line community for working parents.

Roberts, also the author of "How to Raise A Family and A Career Under One Roof: A Parent's Guide to Home Business," said that about 60 percent of her organization's members across the country run service-oriented businesses, such as party consulting, catering and meal planning.

"There's such a huge percent of women who are parents and have some type of career," Roberts said. "So there's this huge need for just everyday life services, such as carpooling your children after school."

But starting a home business can be financially risky, and entrepreneurs are likely to put in long hours when working for themselves, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute.

Still, there are rewards.

"It's a chance to do meaningful work in a way that will give you the flexibility that you want," Galinsky said. "Most good businesses are grown out of a personal, `ah ha, I really would have liked this.' "

Hutnik's business, for instance, allows her to spend mornings working from her basement office while her children, ages 9 months and 2 years, play in the next room. When her 2-year-old was an infant, Hutnik brought her along on company business.

"I would put her in a backpack, and walk people's dogs and go shopping with her," Hutnik said, "and she loved it."

Chris Sappington, an Elkridge mother, also wanted to do something that would allow her to stay home with her family and run a business. So, about eight years ago, she founded Saf-T-Ride.

For about $10 a ride, Sappington and her husband, who took a buyout from his company five years ago to become a partner in the business, shuttle kids to and from school, summer camp, after-school activities and day care.

"I think our parents found it more convenient for us to take this ride. Because of their jobs, they have to get to work earlier," said Kevin McAliley, a 13-year-old who takes Saf-T-Ride to school each morning with his brother, Cameron McAliley, 8.

But Sappington and another Howard County mom in the shuttle business said that because of high overhead, shuttling kids is not a big moneymaker -- at least not right away. Sappington said she and her husband weren't expecting any major profits until their business was at least 10 years old.

At its peak, Saf-T-Ride employed 10 part-time workers who shuttled about 100 children, and Sappington said she and her husband were earning about $1,500 to $1,800 a month. But the couple has decided to relocate, and has been downsizing as they prepare to sell the business. Between that, the expense of car repairs and the high price of gas, the profit has become much slimmer, Sappington said.

For Mom's Shuttle, a similar operation in Howard County, the daily frustrations of the shuttle business -- low profits, drivers who don't show up for work and parents who forget to call on the days they don't need the service -- coupled with high overhead were enough to close the business.

"When I took on customers for the year, I did it based on gasoline being about $1 a gallon," said Linda Betts, the "mom" of 5-year-old Mom's Shuttle, which will close in June. "And you just can't recoup those kind of expenses."

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