St. Albans, Maine — Charlie Meads makes wooden canoes in a shop next to his hand-built home here in St. Albans. Like many entrepreneurs who run their own business out of their homes, Mr. Meads is proud of his work, and he talks long and lovingly about it.The bearded craftsman insists that there is nothing to compare to paddling through a lake in one of his canoes.
He may be right. Even a novice can feel the difference between a metal canoe and one of Mr. Meads's wooden beauties, which are attractive enough to be displayed as trendy sculpture in a large city apartment. Slipped into Indian Lake in St. Albans, one of his wood canoes cuts silently across the water with a silky glide.
"You have to be in love to stick with it," he says of his small business. And his story is typical of individuals across the nation as they strive to turn their skills into businesses.
It does take a certain type of person to run a business at home, whether making canoes, computers, or chocolate chip cookies. It is hard to get financing, and the success rate is not high. There are few fortunes made at home. It is sometimes frustrating trying to make heads or tails of taxes, government regulations, zoning laws, or accounting practices. And there is no "leaving it all behind" at the end of the day.
Yet these small operations are abundant. In 1977 there were nearly a half million retail businesses without a payroll, meaning they were run by one person or a family. Service industries, which include such work as accountants, typists, and researchers, had more than a million businesses without a payroll. There is no exact count on how many of these are actually at-home businesses.
Charlie Meads found his career when he took a vocational course in boatmaking.
"I had done a brief apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker, but that didn't work out," he says. Once he started working with boat, he was hooked. He worked several years for other firms before he decided to start his own business.
His canoes are made for cruising and not white water adventures. Some are equipped with a knockdown mast for sailing.
"A hundred years ago, sailing canoes were the rage," he says. "There were a lot of canoe shops in Boston, for example, and the canoes were used on the Charles River. In the 1890s, though, bicycles became available and sailing canoes disappeared."
Mr. Meads has his business at home for financial reasons. Saving money on overhead is very important at this stage.
"And it is a lot more comfortable not to be out driving in the middle of winter here," he says, referring to the bitter cold months.
Money has not been a problem for Mr. Meads, because he has kept his business on a small scale. He started on a small loan from his family, and until he is ready to expand, he will not need more loans. He built his own shop and bought used machinery. His wife, Ann, helps with correspondence.
Like many people with a small business, Mr. Meads has several other jobs he can fall back on for supplemental income. He builds furniture, repairs boats, and has jobbed out for housing construction.
"You have to be spread in three or four directions," says Mr. Meads. Right now he works all alone in his shop.
"It is nice and quiet, and I get a lot done, but I would like to hire some people later." When he has enough orders for the wooden canoes, he may build a bigger shop elsewhere and hire a crew. Eventually Mr. Meads would like to build bigger boats.
"I'm on the verge of thinking of myself as a businessman," Mr. Meads admits. He doesn't think of himself as merely a craftsman.
"I don't want this to be part-time work, but full-time. I'd like it to be a viable business."
Charlie Meads reflects the independence of many small-business owners, whether it be a researcher who does business for the government out of his home or a homemaker who is also an excellent seamstress. Mr. Meads says he feels a kind of joy when he has helped to build a boat and then goes out on the water in it.
"I think there is a chunk of me that is from a different generation," Mr. Meads explains. "I like taking part in building something, and then seeing it work, whether it is a house or a boat. I guess I am destined to be a blue collar worker."
Mr. Meads has run into the same questions that many cottage industries face. Many entrepreneurs consider themselves producers, and not business people. They don't always understand management, bookkeeping, or marketing.
Mr. Meads found help for some of his questions through a nonprofit organization called Accion, which helps small businesses in both the US and Latin America. Accion gives seminars on business problems, gets banking and small business people talking, and acts as an advocate for the small businesses. Government regulations, for example, are a mystery to many small businesses.
"They don't understand regulations, and they fear that someone is going to walk in and close them up," says John Hammock of Accion's Cambridge, Mass., office."Most believe they are doing something wrong."
Other potential entrepreneurs get help from the Small Business Administration (SBA). Arthur Moskowitz of Brookline, Mass., is a counselor for the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), an arm of the SBA. Mr. Moskowitz, who was in the men's clothing business, counsels people on how to get money, how to set up bookkeeping and accounting operations, and what short of tax and business obligations they will have. Last month 250 people visited SCORE counselors in Boston.
"Money is the biggest obstacle," says Mr. Moskowitz. "Interest rates are high, and banks are very discriminating in who they lend money to." But he believes that any time is good to start a business for people who are capable and ready. People should thoroughly examine their past experience before they jump into business, according to Mr. Moskowitz.
"If she is qualified, I will encourage her," he says. "If not, I suggest she go to work in the field before she tries her own business. A person has to equate what she is going to give up and what she will get."
Both Mr. Moskowitz and Mr. Hammock of Accion believe that small businesses are an important part of the economy, even though their dollar share may not look like much.
Larger industries that come into a community often bring in their own workers nd then invest profits in plants elsewhere in the country. By contrast, money from small businesses is invested locally and will work in the area. Mr. Meads, for example, buys much of his lumber locally.
"Micros are crucial in increasing local wealth, and keeping control in an area," says Mr. Hammock.