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It Ain't Over: How A Squirrel Turned A Stay-At-Home Mom Into A Millionaire

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One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. Women should know that they don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This story is about a woman who gave up her dream job to be a stay-at-home mom, and invented a career that allowed her to be home with her daughters and make millions! -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

Debra Cohen had a career most people couldn’t even begin to imagine. As the Vice President of a Spanish language aviation magazine, she traveled the world -- flying on corporate jets and staying in only the most luxurious hotels. It wasn’t uncommon for her to hop on a helicopter or glider, in the middle of the day, and land on a remote South American island for lunch. She spent so much time abroad, that no one was really surprised when she got the biggest news of her life, alone in a Paris hotel.

“I was late,” Debra recalled, “very late. I’d taken home pregnancy tests before I left New York, but nothing showed up. So I thought I’d try one more time. But I bought the kit in France, so the results were in French and I couldn’t read them. I had to call down to the desk to find out that I was pregnant!”

And at that moment, on the phone with a desk clerk, Debra knew her entire life was about to change. She continued to travel until she couldn’t anymore, but once her daughter Emily was born, she traded in her frequent flyer status to become a stay-at-home mom.

“I tried working from home several days a week. I tried having a nanny. I loved my job and it was the hardest decision of my life. But I loved my daughter more.”

So there she was, a new mom, grounded for the first time in nine years. Her husband was working overtime, so they could make ends meet, and for the first time since she was a teenager Debra was living in the suburbs.

“My husband is not a city person,” Debra said, “and we really didn’t want to raise a baby in an apartment. So we bought a 75-year-old black and white Tudor on Long Island. I didn’t know a single person. I was alone, with a new baby, far away from everything familiar.”

So Debra did what she knew best. When the baby slept, she reverted back to her own childhood -- where she had hung curtains on a doll house her father built in their backyard and painted her bedroom in horizontal stripes. She began to redecorate.

“My husband says that our entryway would be four feet wider if it weren’t for all the layers of paint I’d experimented with. I pulled off wallpaper and painted pretty much every room in the house.”

And if that wasn’t enough to keep her occupied, she discovered an unexpected welcoming committee -- that was nothing like anything she’d ever seen in her high-rise apartment.

“First there was the bird that flew in through our chimney,” Debra remembered. “And then one night, we heard something scurrying around upstairs. My husband, Charles, opened the attic door and there were two beady eyes staring back at him. He chased the bird out, but we weren’t going to mess with the squirrel. So we started calling people. They’d catch it and it would come back again. It even chewed through a metal fan to get back in. One guy came over and said he couldn’t find it, but he did show us a carpenter ant he discovered in our basement. To this day, I think he planted it. I never saw one again.

"I was a woman home alone, with strange people coming to my house, telling me things I didn’t understand and it was costing us money we didn’t have. It was all very eye-opening.”

Eye-opening enough that Debra quickly realized she couldn’t be the only one who felt this way. Strange as it may sound, those unwanted visitors who had found their way into her home were about to open one more entryway -- the one that would lead to Debra’s next career.

“I decided I was going to begin a contractor referral service,” Debra said. “I started networking and asking the people at the hardware store and the paint store, even women I’d meet while I was walking the baby, who the best service people in the area were. And then I talked with the contractors, to see what kinds of commissions they thought would be fair.”

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It Ain't Over: Debra Cohen
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Soon she had a group of five contractors who were ready and willing to paint, refinish, repair and of course, get rid of unwanted pests. And each of them was more than happy to pay Debra a fee for every project she brought them. Now all she needed were customers -- and one other minor thing -- the money to get the business off the ground.

“We decided to take a loan from my husband’s retirement savings plan. We really didn’t have much and we couldn’t afford to lose anything. But when my husband said to me, ‘if you’re that worried, then don’t do it,' that’s when I knew I had to. I couldn’t live with the 'what ifs?'”

So with $5,000, Debra began to put the pieces in place. She hired a lawyer, bought mailing lists, invested in some used office equipment and printed up 200 direct mail pieces promoting her new company, which she proudly named Home Remedies of NY®. And then she sent them to new homebuyers in the area.

“I’d call the people who owned the most expensive homes first,” Debra laughed. “But I didn’t do it as a hard-driving sales pitch. I’d call as a new neighbor, tell them about what I was doing and ask if they needed any help. I made it easy for them. And most of the time, they’d say, ‘I was thinking of doing this or that, do you know anyone?’ I never said no. If I didn’t know the right contractor, I found them. And I paid off that loan in six months.”

But it was a call that came in from outside the neighborhood that really set Debra in motion. Someone in Boston had heard about Home Remedies® and was interested in starting something similar in her part of the country.

“At first I thought about creating franchises,” Debra said, “but I knew that would take too much time away from my daughter, and by that point I was pregnant with my second child, Sophie, so I decided to build a business in a box. I created a manual and included every detail I could think of -- job order forms, my filing system, how to organize your calendar by color and date. And then I put an ad in The New York Times to see how much interest there was.”

Almost immediately, Debra got more than 20 calls and she began a pilot program. She sold her “business in a box” to three people who each lived on Long Island -- far enough away that it wouldn’t interfere with her own clientele -- but close enough that they could refer work to each other. It worked so well, that she decided to expand even further. And today, with Debra’s help, more than 300 people around the world have begun homeowner referral networks.

“Eighty percent of our referral network is made up of women. Some are stay-at-home moms, others are grandmothers and some just wanted to find more balance in their lives. I know how important that was to me personally. I couldn’t have continued working in corporate America, and taken my daughters to school or been home with them when they were sick. So I changed the terms.”

And changing those terms is what allowed Debra to take that $5,000 investment and turn it into a $3.5 million business.

“My husband likes to say I’m the best investment he ever made,” Debra said with a smile. “But really this was an investment in my family.

“My number one priority was to be a good mom,” she continued, “and I think being self-fulfilled is an important part of that. I want my girls to know, that with the right balance, you can be both.”

To learn more about Debra’s home owner referral network or to find a contractor in your area, you can visit http://www.hrnbiz.com.

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Filed by Gabrielle Linzer