Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The IHBO is not a cable TV channel...

When I first arrived in Japan in July 2012, I had no idea what I wanted to do to earn money. I was already an adjunct instructor, teaching seniors online for the University of West Florida, but having a just class or two, a full salary does not make. I had quit two jobs in Pensacola when the spouse was reassigned to MCAS Iwakuni, and I wanted to make up for that income I had lost. It was either work a 9 to 5 job on base or work for myself. I found that Iwakuni's career/job choices are extremely limited, and with most available positions paying well below the American average for comparable job descriptions. I quickly came to the conclusion that I, like many career-minded individuals accompanying their military spouse stationed in Iwakuni, would benefit from starting or relaunching my own business.

Photographer me

Crafter me
I had previously owned a scrapbooking company, selling custom products and teaching classes, but had sold it in 2010. But I was told by other spouses that there was a need for such diversions in Iwakuni, so I dusted off my scrapbooking scissors, and got to work. I avoided catalog businesses (think Pamper Chef, Scentsy, Thirty-One, etc.) because there are already a lot of reps for those here. Being a small community of about 6,500, with most of those being single male Marines, and not really the catalog demographic, the competition can get fierce - and, sadly, sometimes nasty. If you are moving here, you may want to keep this in mind. By having two unique businesses that I founded myself, I avoid this problem. Even though one of my businesses is photography, and there are a plethora of other photographers here, we all have a different style and offer different types of photography, so there is still a way to find a niche. If you and someone else sell Tupperware, you both are selling the same products for the same prices. It's tougher to be unique.

In order to have a legitimate business on base, you must go through the Station Judge Advocate (base legal) approval process... or so I heard through the whispered murmurings of the Iwakuni grapevine. There weren't too many resources for home-based business owners aboard MCAS Iwakuni when I arrived, and the application process through SJA was a bit confusing.... and that's if you even knew to start with SJA to get the ball rolling to open your business!

I arrived in Iwakuni at the end of July 2012. In September 2012 there was a Spouse's Day, with informational seminars throughout that day, highlighting different services and resources available on station. The seminar that was the most attended of the five I went to was the one about how to start your own business on base. There were about two dozen women in that class, all of them wanting information about how to start, market and manage their businesses. We had all been uprooted from our homes, sent to a small community in a foreign land, and needed/wanted to replace the income we had left behind.

The information provided in the seminar was excellent, and got me on the road to starting up my crafting business Tenaciously Remembered, but there wasn't any group or organization to go to for day-to-day support. There weren't any events specifically for home-based business owners to showcase their products and services. It wasn't even clear as to how and where businesses owners on base could advertise. And, talking amongst ourselves during the workshop, we thought that having a one-stop-shop business directory would help the Iwakuni community find products and services they were looking for, right here within the community, rather than online.

So, along with my scrapbooking scissors, I dusted off my organizational and marketing skills and got to work, gathering up interested business owners and creating the Iwakuni Business DirectoryThe purpose of the IHBO is for home-based business owners attached to MCAS Iwakuni to combine resources, share information and enhance marketing efforts. You can learn more about its purpose and how to start your business here.

These are from an early IHBO meeting... we were practicing making craft fair tables attractive and uncluttered. :)
It took about six months for the group to really get going. There were only about five of us who came to each monthly meeting through the fall of 2012 and winter of 2013, but we were determined to see this group succeed. We worked to become a "legitimate" organization on base, applying to become a private organization, so we could follow the base rules and not run in to the risk of being shut down. However, after submitting all of the paperwork, we were denied approval: private orgs (spouses groups, for example) can not promote any one for-profit business. The nature of the IHBO is that all of the members are promoting their for-profit businesses. So, because of this technicality were are not an official private organization, but the base is aware of us, and seemingly, doesn't have a problem with our purpose and actions. In fact, the IHBO has gained a reputation for being a good resource for new home-based business owners, something I am proud of.

But marketing our businesses in a way that the base approved of was still tricky. Depending on who you asked, be it SJA or housing, business owners were not allowed to post fliers on the midrise bulletin boards. An email saying so was sent to all midrise residents. As president of the IHBO, this was brought to my attention. I contacted housing and SJA and asked for this policy to be reconsidered. The matter was looked in to and information was soon released that home-based businesses could post fliers on midrise bulletin boards as long as there was a point of contact and a date on the flier. A small, but important allowance for business owners as a group... something that may not have been addressed quickly and professionally if we hadn't been organized in to a group as the IHBO.

The flier policy is important to all business owners because it is one of the few low cost (cost of printing the flier) ways we can advertise on base. There are other advertising opportunities in The Preview magazine and on the Sakura Theater screen before movies, but neither option is affordable for a home-based business owner on a tight start-up budget. The only other options, really, were word-of-mouth, which takes time, and Facebook groups, such as the MCAS Iwakuni Classifieds and Information group. And, as a side note, the Classifieds group has its own rules about businesses posting (you can only post once a week, for starters), so be sure you know the rules so you aren't banned.

The IHBO needed more ways to introduce the Iwakuni community to the products and services individual businesses offered in a way that the base allowed. There had been a craft sale on base each Fall, approved by the base and Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS), and organized by an individual who moved away from Iwakuni the same summer I arrived. Then the craft sale planning was attempted by a spouse organization that shut down a few months later. I helped market that November 2012 craft sale and then, when no one else was prepared to take it on, brought it in to the IHBO, which seemed to make lot of sense. Most of the crafters were home-based business owners... they made their crafts at home to sell. We charged $25 per table, with all of the fees going toward advertising expenses and table, chair and truck rental. I volunteered to write articles about home-based businesses for the Preview for additional exposure, and to highlight the ads that we purchased.

For the IHBO's first sale, in the spring of 2013, we renamed the event the Craft and Information Fair, so that other home-based businesses, not just those with hand-made crafts, would join us. We had more than 20 vendors on hand at Crossroads Mall and the community supported us whole-heartedly. The fairs in November 2013 and March 2014 saw similar results. And on a personal note, I dusted off my photography degree and started Jessica Guthrie Photography in May 2013.

This October, the IHBO will be two years old. The Craft and Information Fair has become the Home Business Expo. Our Oct. 4 Expo will have nearly 30 vendors... and, in a bittersweet fashion, we have abut six more vendors on a waiting list. I'm sorry we can't fit everyone in to the approved area in Crossroads Mall, but I am so happy that the IHBO and the event are growing! And there seem to be more home-based businesses on MCAS Iwakuni than ever before. It looks like the base and MCCS have taken notice. There are more seminars and events offered to the MCAS Iwakuni business community. I just took an entrepreneur workshop sponsored by the Personal and Professional Development office (building 411), as part of the Boots to Business project. The next one is in October. There is also going to be a BEE Your Own Boss evening seminar in October, as well, introducing policies and resources for home-based businesses on MCAS Iwakuni.

When I realized that I had never blogged exclusively about the IHBO, which, as I am sure you have gathered, I am very passionate about, I knew I had to remedy that, despite the fact that there aren't a lot of pretty pictures to go along with this post. I have mentioned the IHBO in a blog where I encouraged military spouses to think outside of the box when it comes to career paths, but never about the organization itself. I do this now because I hope that providing some written background about the IHBO helps it to continue to grow and thrive long after my husband retires from the Marine Corps in 2016 and I move back to the States. It's important to have a small "chamber of commerce" to support fellow business owners and help each other further our careers and add to our household incomes while we're here. I've found that as a group we can achieve so much more than we could as individuals.

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