Debra Cohen is a successful mompreneur, President of Home Remedies® of NY, Inc., and founder of the Homeowner Referral Network (HRN®) and Aging in Place Referrals business.
Her contractor referral business pre-screens home improvement contractors and refers them to local homeowners. Cohen launched her HRN business in 1997 as a way to earn an income while staying-at-home to raise her first child. In its first six months of operation, Home Remedies® was profitable and boasted a client list of over 100 satisfied homeowners throughout Nassau County, Long Island. Read on to see how she got started in the referral business industry.
You’ve been in business since 1997, tell us a little bit about yourself and your entrepreneurial journey.
I left a career in Corporate America when my first daughter was born because it was always my dream to be a full-time mom, but after a few months, our bills started to pile up, and I longed for the stimulation (not to mention the income!) of a career.
I’ve always loved decorating and home improvements, and I’m a networker by nature. After my husband and I purchased our first home, we realized how difficult it was to find reliable contractors, and that was my “aha!” moment. I decided that I would try to create a business that would fill this need in our community and, at the same time, make the extra money our family needed.
I set up my office in our basement on an old farm table and took a $5,000 loan from my husband’s retirement fund. I worked about 15 hours/day when my daughter slept, in the evenings, weekends, and in the early morning hours. Three months later, I launched Home Remedies of NY, Inc. or as I refer to my business, a Homeowner Referral Network (HRN).
I started with just a handful of contractors—a painter, plumber, carpenter, floor refinisher, and an exterminator—and started to promote my business to local homeowners. I got my first client three days after sending out a direct mail card, and it was one of the most thrilling moments of my career!
My business slowly grew through word of mouth and promotion, and within six months I was able to repay my loan. In my first year of operation, working part-time, my business made almost $30K!
As word about my HRN business grew, I started to receive job referral requests from homeowners outside of my operating area and couldn’t keep up with the demand (while I was raising a family). I also received calls from people in other areas who were interested in launching a business like mine. That’s when I had my second “aha!” moment.
I decided to duplicate my business in a comprehensive manual and business package and provide consultation so that I could help other entrepreneurs launch HRN businesses like mine and refer work to them. There are now more than 300 Homeowner Referral Network businesses operating across the US and a few internationally.
Over the years you’ve done a lot of different things to grow your business, what activities have had the biggest impact?
When I launched Home Remedies, there was no internet! So by far, the greatest tool for expanding my business was creating a website.
The second biggest promotional tool I’ve used is PR. My business has been featured in local media as well as numerous national outlets including Good Housekeeping, Remodeling, and Working Mother, and that has helped me spread the word.
You offer two different business opportunities for individuals who want to work from home — tell us a little bit about those opportunities.
As I mentioned above, I wrote The Complete Guide to Owning and Operating a Successful Homeowner Referral Network which is like a franchise manual. It outlines every aspect of my HRN business, including step-by-step procedures on how to launch a network in your area, detailed information on how to locate, screen, and represent a comprehensive network of home improvement contractors, contractor commission structures, a targeted direct mail, and advertising campaign, liability information, accounting procedures, and insurance information.
The Complete Guide to Owning and Operating a Successful Homeowner Referral Network is sold individually or as part of an HRN Business Package with consultation time, forms, a customized website, customized HRN Management Software, the HRN Graphics CD, and the HRNewsletter.
I have recently added another marketing arm to my HRN business which is Aging in Place Referrals which explains how to screen a select group of contractors with specific experience and credentials to serve the needs of older homeowners who need to modify and maintain their homes.
All of the Aging in Place screening procedures, homeowner interviews, marketing information, and more are also included in the HRN Business Manual.
What sorts of individuals make good HRN Business Owners?
The most successful HRN owners are self-motivated, organized, and outgoing.
This is a “word of mouth” business. Networking with people in your community is your best promotional tool. Experience in the home improvement business is not necessary.
HRN owners handle the sales and marketing side of their business, they never go to a job site or get involved with the technical aspects of a job.
Also, 90% of the HRN business can be operated by telephone and computer, so this business works best for people who are looking for flexibility.
Realistically, how much can an individual earn as a Referral Agent?
As I mentioned before, in my first year I made almost $30K working part-time (and I had to start from scratch!). HRN owners who have been operating for a year or more have told me that they have earned commissions of more than $10K/month. The beauty of this type of business is that there is little to no overhead.
However, keep in mind that this isn’t a get rich quick scheme; it’s a business. If you work, there is no limit to how big it will grow over time.
What are some of the benefits of being a Referral Agent?
Flexibility, low overhead, excellent profit potential, and the gratification you get from helping both your clients and your contractors.
What are some of the challenges you face as a Home Referral Business Agent?
I need to be very organized and diligent about following up with my contractors to make sure that they remember their appointments, send me copies of estimates, and final bills.
Over the years I’ve established an excellent working relationship with over 50 contractors, so it has become much easier but being diligent about follow-up is key in this type of business.
Thanks, Debra for sharing your story!
Originally published May 14, 2012. Content updated July 17, 2017.