This Stay-at-Home Mom Turned a Simple Idea into a $4 Million Business

stay at home mom
Image provided by Debra Cohen

Debra Cohen had a killer job.

She was vice president of a Spanish-language aviation magazine in Manhattan, which sent her all over the world — an “amazing adventure.”

She was on a business trip to Paris when she found out she was pregnant with her first daughter.

Cohen was faced with the working mother’s dilemma: Could she keep her corporate career and have the kind of family life she valued?

That was 20 years ago.

Cohen’s response to this common dilemma ultimately led to her version of “having it all” — the chance to raise her (now, two) daughters and grow a home-based business that’s grossed almost $4 million.

Leaving a Successful Career

“My husband and I had a heartfelt conversation one night about how I was missing out,” Cohen explains.

“He said, ‘quit your job.’ [It was about] quality of life over quantity of money.”

Cohen’s company accommodated motherhood as best it could. After maternity leave, she was even able to work at home some days.

But when she did go to the office, the commute meant she was away from home for 12 hours. And the position still required travel, which Cohen says was the hardest part.

“I didn’t know what she was eating, what she was doing [throughout the day],” she says of her newborn.

Cohen and her husband ultimately decided the best move for their family would be for her to stay at home full time.

But adjusting to life on one income wasn’t easy. They cut down to one car, eliminated eating out and didn’t need daycare, but bills were piling up. Her husband took a second job, but money was still tight.

What’s worse, she says, “I was getting more bored by the minute.”

About three months into full-time motherhood, she was ready for a new solution.

She looked for part-time jobs, but they’d all require childcare, pretty much canceling out any earnings. Full-time work wouldn’t allow the flexibility she needed to be the mother she wanted to be.

“I had worked my entire life,” Cohen says, “and I have a good head on my shoulders.”

She knew she could put that to use and design the work and lifestyle her family needed.

The Aha! Moment

In addition to starting their new family, Cohen and her husband had just purchased their first home.

“As new homeowners,” she says, “we quickly realized how difficult it was to find reliable home improvement professionals.

The final straw was a pregnant squirrel in the attic.

The family lived in a 75-year-old house the critter easily crawled into. The couple went through several contractors to remove the squirrel, but she kept coming back.

Cohen finally asked for a referral at the local hardware store and connected with someone new.

He educated the couple: Once a squirrel has a litter somewhere, she’ll return to it forever. To get rid of her, you can’t just shoo her out of the space. You have to displace her across a body of water.

He did just that — and 20 years later, he’s still their go-to contractor.

Cohen was so impressed with the man’s work, she wanted to spread the word. She asked him whether he’d pay a commission if she could land him jobs, and he said he would.

“The network grew from there,” Cohen says, and Home Remedies was born.

Home Remedies is a Homeowner Referral Network (HRN) that pre-screens and refers a network of more than 50 home improvement contractors (i.e. painters, plumbers, carpenters, general contractors, architects, etc.) to local homeowners.

Contractors in the network pay a pre-negotiated commission for work secured — and the service is free to homeowners.

How to Start a Business as a Stay-at-Home Mom

I’m a networker by nature with a passion for decorating and home improvements,” Cohen says. “I decided to put all of my talents to work and create a business that would fill this need in our community and allow me to work around my daughter’s schedule.

“I launched Home Remedies on an old farm table in my basement with a $5,000 loan from my husband’s retirement savings plan, a refurbished fax machine, computer and a phone.”

When she says she’s a Penny Hoarder, she’s not kidding.

To launch the business, the couple took a $5,000 loan from her husband’s 403(b) teacher retirement account. The loan came with 1% interest and had to be repaid within five years, she recalls.

They paid it back in six months.

Cohen remembers being so afraid to fail, she wouldn’t even pay for a second phone line. Home Remedies operated under the family’s home phone number until it simply became too busy.

For extra money, she worked part time the first summer in a friend’s decorating store. The job not only helped ease the family’s financial woes, but also let Cohen network with local contractors, movers, painters and others involved in home renovation.

During the first year, expenses were minimal. Most of the business was built with Cohen’s own sweat — networking in person and making phone calls to let the community know she was there.

Did I mention this was 1997? She launched the business completely offline.

Home Remedies launched long before Craigslist or Angie’s List became household names. People thought Cohen was crazy, wondering, “Who would use a service like that?”

But she saw the need and powered forward. With its founder raising an infant and squeezing in work during early morning hours and naptime, Home Remedies made $28,000 its first year (equal to about $41,000 today, with inflation).

Home Remedies Today

From an individual referral network in her own community, Cohen has grown Home Remedies to the nationwide Homeowner Referral Network, a cottage industry of more than 300 independent business owners who follow her original model.

While she shares her knowledge with newer entrepreneurs, Cohen says she also benefits from this growing network.

“Working from home can be isolating,” she admits. Consulting with new business owners helps her connect with people who share her situation, and their innovation helps her learn better ways to do business.

Despite its growth, Home Remedies remains the grassroots, community-focused business Cohen started 20 years ago.

Even though the network has moved online, Cohen says, the success of a business is still dependent on word-of-mouth referrals.

Networks are based on quality and trust, so each contractor is personally screened before she’ll make a referral. No one can pay an advertising fee for a preferred listing — they simply have to do impressive work.

Being a Work-at-Home Mom

Cohen’s oldest daughter is now 20, and her second is just about to leave the house for college.

“I’m glad I’ve been working this whole time instead of being out of the workforce,” she says. “This way I have something to do now that the kids are grown.”

She wouldn’t prescribe any one lifestyle to other mothers, though.

“I see women who are so happy not working and being home, and I see women who crave work and are better mothers for [doing] it,” she explains.

For Cohen, starting a business helped her find her balance. Her family needed more money than they had on a single income, and she thrived in work too much to be satisfied without it.

Will her daughters follow in her footsteps?

When I asked Cohen if she thinks her entrepreneurship would rub off on her daughters, she replied, “I don’t even think my daughters realized I was working. It was such a part of our routine.”

To them, Cohen says, she was just… Mom.

She was able to do what she set out to do: be a mom to her kids. She got creative and figured out how to put her family first — without ignoring her own talents.

“[My daughters] will have to reinvent that [balance] depending on their own careers,” she says. “But they’ll have a better sense of what’s right for them.”

Because of the environment they were raised in, Cohen believes, her daughters will understand their options. They won’t be forced to choose along strict lines between work or family.

Their mother had it all — why can’t they?

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a branded content editor at The Penny Hoarder. She also writes about writing, life, comedy and love and attempts humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).