By Ilene Duffy

Ilene Duffy
Issue #62 • March/April, 2000

When my middle son, Robby, was a baby, he had two seizures. After the second one the doctor informed me that I needed to get him to the hospital for various tests. I told my husband what needed to be done, picked up my purse, the diaper bag, my baby, and left for the hospital. No phone calls needed to my employer’s secretary. No explanations to a supervisor. No questions asked. We had our own business. We were the employers.

This quiet episode has been a symbolic memory for me of the grand benefits to owning and operating our own business. Living in the country as we do, with its hard-to-find jobs and low wages for the jobs that do exist, operating our own family business has proven to be a way to restore the income my family once enjoyed from jobs tied to the city.

Since family businesses usually require that both the husband and wife work, the challenge is to combine the needs of the business with the needs of your family. This is a brief look, from a mother’s perspective, of my role in our family business, and how beneficial the business has been for our family. Perhaps it will get you thinking about how you can translate your skills into your own family business.

The beginning

I was a kindergarten school teacher when I met Dave Duffy, Backwoods Home Magazine’s publisher. On our first date he brought over the second issue of the magazine “hot off the press.” I was impressed not only with the content of the magazine but also with one solitary man’s ability to complete such a project. He was obviously a hard worker, which is one of the most important attributes needed to run your own business, and he could have been the poster boy for Nike with his “just do it” attitude. I wish I had a nickel for every time he’s said “you just put one foot in front of the other and before you know it the job gets done.”

I don’t think I alone would have had the gumption to begin my own business, but I have the work ethic to help make a go of the business Dave began. Besides, two heads are better than one, and as it turns out we complement each other nicely. He’s the idea maker, I’m the one to say let’s think this through. He’d rather throw away the bank statements, I balance the checking account to the penny. He’s the deal maker, I’m the shy one doing the behind-the-scenes work.

Ilene Duffy and youngest son, Sammy, take a snow break.
Ilene Duffy and youngest son, Sammy, take a snow break.

Throughout the 10 years of publishing BHM, I have often been amazed at how creative people can be when figuring out how to make their own livelihood. The most successful new small businesses are quite often husband and wife teams, like Dave and me. Usually one of the pair is the “go-getter” while the other partner is that all important detail-oriented type. You need someone to be able to find those receipts and bank statements when the tax man needs them, and you need someone to figure out an organized way of handling the many intricate “must get done” details of the “business” side of your business.

That has been my contribution to this enterprise. That kindergarten teaching experience has come in handy with my ability to manage lots of details (You’d better have all the materials ready for an art project or you get to stare into 32 five-year-olds’ eyes wondering what to do next. It’s scary!).

The details I manage consist mainly of bookkeeping: keeping track of the money coming in and going out, doing the payroll, getting accurate tax information to the accountant, filing important paperwork away so that it can be found in a timely manner, keeping track of the classified ads, and lots more little chores that make me tired just thinking about them.

That experience as a kindergarten teacher prepared me well for the tasks as business manager of a publishing business, but I’ve learned a lot too. I’ve never taken a business, accounting, or marketing course, so “on the job training” was my main teacher. I discovered that the business side isn’t that complicated, and the accounting part isn’t that hard. It does involve close attention to detail, but if you can add and subtract accurately, you can run the accounting side of any home-based business. The computer programs, Quicken and Quick Books Pro, have helped me keep track of the finances.


Another one of my important jobs is marketing. Dave has always been instrumental in the creation of the magazine, whereas my role has been figuring out what to do with the product once it has been created. It’s quite a trick to decide how much money to spend on which form of advertising. Do we buy an ad in another magazine, a card in a card pack, a spot on a radio show? I’ve had good calls and bad calls, but overall we continue to grow. I know I’ve got a good product, and if I ever figure out how to expansively market this puppy, we’ll be living in high cotton.

The benefits

The benefits to running your own business are many. The clock is a less significant presence in your life. It would be hard to go back to the pressure of needing to be somewhere every working morning at a specific time. Our time is our own. On the other hand, I can’t begin to tell you how often we’ve stayed up late or gotten up early because the work simply needed to get done. But it’s still our choice to do so.

Dave and I work well together. Kind of like that song about the horse and carriage, and love and marriage… you can’t have one without the other. I tend to like the aspects of the business that he doesn’t. I find the challenge of marketing enjoyable and satisfying, while he likes dealing with the writers, organizing and laying out the issue, and writing his column.

I’m sure it’s very possible to singlehandedly run your own business and we’re always looking for stories of people out there who are creative enough to meet that challenge. I tip my hat to all of you with the guts to try. But we need each other for this enterprise.

The financial rewards are important to consider. My teaching salary was more than I get paid now and I could count on it like clockwork at the end of each month. Now my pay is not nearly as predictable, but there are fewer constraints with our expenses. I have no need to buy clothes for an out-of-the-house workplace. Jeans and a tee shirt are good enough. I don’t need to travel to and from town as much, because I often work out of my house. I’ve got pretty much everything I need to work at home. And my kids are here with me. Now there’s a benefit.

Our kids have the added benefit of being around a home-grown business. I’d be surprised if they didn’t absorb lessons about “working for a living” just by watching all of us at work. Also they have been around computers all their lives, whereas I never touched a computer until I met Dave—and I’m still afraid of the darn things. In a world that will someday be totally computer oriented, the kids are going to need a firm grasp of what computers can do for them as a tool if they are to succeed.

Traveling can sometimes be a business tax write-off. Going to southern California to visit my mother has often been combined with trips to work with our artist of many years, Don Childers. Sometimes family trips to various local sights have been combined with my step-daughter, Annie’s, columns. (A word to the wise: get a good accountant to help you figure out what you can claim and how to keep track of it.)

Stress and your health

A huge plus is somewhat intangible to measure—our health. Probably because our time is our own to do as we choose, there is a lot less stress than dealing with someone else’s clock, goals, and demands.

The stress that there is—and some people might look at the stack of bills that go along with running this enterprise and wonder how I sleep at night—is easier to manage because this is something we are doing for ourselves. And if I’m organized and know when invoices are due and for how much, it seems to diminish the stress.

A little trick I do with my bills payable is to keep them rubber banded together in my brief case, ordered by the date they are due with the amount of the invoice written on the outside of each envelope. That way I can quickly scan the total amount owed. It’s not high tech, but it works.

How do you start

People might wonder how in the world do you start a business? Where do you begin? My husband’s brainstorm was to write a book about building his own house in the country. The first few chapters of the book developed into what is now the magazine. He didn’t give marketing the product a moment of his attention. He just knew he wanted to live in the country, build his own house, and write.

Most marketing and advertising gurus would say that you have to have a marketing plan and some idea about who wants your product before you create it. That may be so for some businesses, but it certainly wasn’t the case with us. We suddenly had a magazine on our hands, created by default from Dave’s attempted book, and we went from there, making it the best magazine we could and trying to figure out who would want to buy it. We succeeded by trial and error and hard work.

Middle son, Robby, gets computer help from Mom.
Middle son, Robby, gets computer help from Mom.

Others might say you need to go into debt and borrow money in order to have start-up capital for a business. But we didn’t. What we did have in the early days of this business were people…good people with talent and a desire to see Dave’s dream succeed.

Our computer genius, Tim Green, helped us to set up the original database program used to store the subscription list. A business associate of Dave’s, Kurt Warner, gave him a laser jet printer. Our good friend, Jan Cook, typed and typed and typed. Dave’s basketball buddy, Norm Boisvert, stuffed hundreds of envelopes with magazines for mailings. Our talented artist for the first nine years of the business, Don Childers, gave willingly of his time to create the covers, drawings, and illustrations. And our senior editor, John Silveira, wrote articles that were a cut above the average. Dave’s enthusiasm was tremendously infectious and was perhaps the one strength that was most needed in the early days of this enterprise.

The personal benefits

One of the best parts of owning Backwoods Home Magazine has been the ready availability of good information that I’m interested in myself. As a busy wife and mother, I use the knowledge to help our own family become more self-reliant. I always take heed of Alice Yeager’s experience in her garden, and Richard Blunt’s culinary information and recipes are read and reread.

Jackie Clay’s information on food storage has been an eye-opener. We practice what we preach by keeping our own pantry stocked and organized, but Jackie’s knowledge far surpasses mine. This past summer, I felt so proud of my jars of pickles and blackberry jam. There’s also great information in Robert Williams’ articles on making a living. It’s amazing how many ways people can make a living without the usual 9-5 job.

Then there are writers like Joe Hooker and Don Fallick who have “been there and done that” on virtually every aspect of self-reliant living. Even though I don’t always understand the details of Michael Hackleman’s articles on independent energy, I enjoy learning about something new. And I may not be Mrs. Gun Owner of America, but it’s obvious that Massad Ayoob’s articles concerning the legalities and responsibilities of gun ownership are of great value to our readers.

I’m also fortunate to have the availability of so many books that we sell through the magazine that help me on the home front. I especially use the books on gardening and the cookbooks. Yesterday I made a delightful quick herb bread to go with a stew. I found the recipe on page 49 of The Bread Book, A Baker’s Almanac. Dave also uses several of the advertiser’s products; every morning he makes me a fruit smoothie in our Vita-Mixer.

Learning and learning

I’m learning all the time. It seems lately I get little business lessons just by watching how employees of other businesses treat me. When I get treated poorly, I make a mental note to make sure our employees will not treat our subscribers similarly. Likewise, when I am treated with friendship and good service, it makes me realize how vital an employee’s attitude is to the success of a business. We try to teach our staff that it isn’t the employer that comes up with the paycheck…it’s the customer.

But the very best part of running our own business has been my ability to be with my children a lot more than other working mothers. It’s the one benefit that dwarfs all the others. Sometimes I bring them to the office with me, and in fact I have a play and study area set up for them in my office at BHM. And even though there are times when I need to be in the office alone, without any kids doing acrobatics on my chair, I thoroughly appreciate having the freedom to be at home with them more often than not.

If you or your spouse have a skill or an idea you think can be translated into your own business, my advice is to go for it. It may require some trial and error, and it will definitely require a lot of hard work, but the benefits when you succeed are worth it.

And, by the way, the doctors never did find out why Robby had those seizures. They said the brain is complicated, and he may never have another seizure as long as he lives. At any rate, Robby and and the rest of the Duffy gang of kids are doing just fine, and that’s the way I like it.


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