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Category: Best Financial Performers

Home-based businesses with revenues and profitability worth bragging

Home Remedies Entrepreneur: Debra Cohen

Location: Hewlett, New York

Description: Debra Cohen’s Home Remedies is a referral-network business that screens and refers local home-improvement professionals. Contractors in the network pay a pre-negotiated commission to Home Remedies for any work secured which means that the service is free to homeowners.

Dear Debra,
I wanted to personally congratulate you and recognize your outstanding
business opportunity as being recognized as one of the International Association
of Mothers Working at Home 20006 Opportunity of the Year, award winners.
Sincerely, Kory Skrob President, International Association of Mothers
Working at Home
Excerpt from All YouAugust, 2010

By Nina Malkin

‘I turned a home problem into a home business’

Debra Cohen, 42, Hewlett, N.Y.

Working at an aviation magazine was thrilling, but it required a lot of travel, and once my first daughter, Emily, was born in 1996, my heart was no longer in it. My husband, Charles, and I had just bought a house, and since he is a teacher, we had to tighten our belts for me to be a stay-at- home mom.At first, taking care of Emily all day was wonderful. But I began to feel increasingly isolated and unproductive, as well as stressed about our finances. Being the bill payer, I was painfully aware of how hard it was to make ends meet, even with Charles coaching to bring in extra cash. As much as I wanted to stay home, I started to panic that we would lose our house. I was feeling especially low the day I discovered squirrels in our attic. Not knowing anyone in our new neighborhood to ask for advice, I pulled out the Yellow Pages. The first exterminator I called claimed to get rid of the rodents, but they were back in a couple of weeks. Another guy tried to sell me an expensive service contract. After sinking $600 into several contractors, I finally stumbled on a reputable guy who did the job once and for all. Relieved, I told him, “I wish I could tell everyone about your work!” Then I thought, why can’t I? It occurred to me that there had to be other people like me who could use a direct line to quality local contractors. Becoming the “middle woman” between the homeowners and reliable home improvement professionals might be a way to make money and feel productive as a stay-at-home mom, too.

What helped Debra

BEING FLEXIBLE:“At first, I thought about starting an employment agency for contractors, but I learned I’d be at risk for liability issues, so I created a referral business instead. Later, I thought of selling franchises, but it turned out to be more
cost-effective to sell a business template”LEARNING ON THE JOB:“I wanted to bring in extra money before my business took off, but instead of jumping on any part-time, I found one at a furniture store. I could rub elbows with decorators, and through them I met contractors for my business.”


“If you don’t have a ton of money to hire people, consider other stay-at-home-moms, neighbors and older folks. I went to Score, the Service Corps of Retired Executives (score.org), and found a great person to do work for me.”



Quotes from Good Housekeeping
, August 2008

Quotes from WHY
Magazine – Online Campanion for the Work-At-Homer
workhomeyou.comSuccess Story, Summer 2008

Who You Gonna Call?

Debra Cohen makes a name for herself by pairing good contractors
with needy homeowners

By Priscilla Y. Huff

If you are a homeowner and your toilet overflows, or your house is invaded by insects, or you need a reliable remodeling contractor, you may wonder, “Who am I gonna call?” to fix these problems? Fortunately, Debra Cohen, owner of Home Remedies of NY, Inc., can come to your rescue. Cohen’s Homeowner Referral Network (HRN) is an organized network of pre-screened contractors representing almost every field of home improvement, maintenance and design.

After leaving her position as the vice-president of a Spanish-language aviation magazine to stay home with her children, Cohen began to miss the stimulation of a career—not to mention the income that helped support her family. “My husband and I had just purchased our first home and quickly realized how difficult (and expensive) it was to find reliable home improvement contractors,” she says.

Whenever Cohen found a skilled and dependable professional, she kept the contractor’s name for future reference. “It occurred to me that homeowners in my community could benefit from a service that would pre-screen contractors, and in turn, responsible contractors could benefit from a service that would help promote their businesses.” says Cohen.

Today, Cohen’s HRN represents more than 50 pre-screened, home improvement contractors ranging from painters, plumbers and carpenters to general contractors, architects and decorative painters. Contractors in the network pay a pre-negotiated commission on any work secured, which means that the referral
service is free to homeowners . . .

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Quotes from New York

Small Business, September 27, 2007

Headquarters at Home and Proud to Be There

by MARCI ALBOHER Published: September 27, 2007

Debra M. Cohen, 40, by contrast, says she designed her business, a contractor referral service for homeowners, around the idea that she might be on the phone for business and her children might be making a ruckus in the background. Her company, Home Remedies of New York, has become so successful, she says, that she now offers consulting services to others who want to copy her business model in their communities. Ms. Cohen says she has home referral operators running her programs in nearly every state and Canada.

When exploring ideas for a business, she ran every idea through the “can it be done from home with kids underfoot” test, she said.

Working from home may allow for certain informalities, but it does not necessarily signal the size of an entrepreneur’s vision. Ms. Cohen’s business passed the million-dollar revenue mark four years after its founding. Bradley Rhine, 46, who works out of his home in San Jose, Calif., is a chief executive of Cogentes, a virtual consulting firm specializing in the information technology industry. Cogentes plans to hire 100 to 200 employees over the next several years.

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Decorating buff Debra M. Cohen combined her passion for renovating with a desire for reliable contractors and launched a booming home remedies business.

Ten years ago, Cohen, 39, moved into a new home in dire need of repairs. Not being the do-it-yourself type, she started looking for contractors — and encountered a string of disappointments. “Contractors would not show up,” Cohen says. And when many of them did, the work was unacceptable.

Being a 24/7 HGTV viewer, Cohen saw in “Designers’ Challenge” and “Design on a Dime” what good contractors, plumbers and painters can do but knew from experience that they are hard to find.

She finally found a dependable contractor after screening out a lot of bad ones along the way. “I realized we weren”t the only ones with this problem,” she says, so she decided to share her information. She launched Home Remedies of NY in 1997 from her home.

This stay-at-home mom created a contractor-referral service that saves homeowners the task of locating and screening reliable workers. Cohen”s network consists of more than 50 prescreened contractors, architects and decorative painters — all of whom have more than 15 years of experience.

Home Remedies of NY checks if contractors are insured and licensed, and serves as a liaison between the homeowner and contractor through the course of the job. Services are provided free to the homeowner, and contractors represented by Home Remedies pay a commission only for the work they secure through the service.

Starting the business was not easy, and her husband took out a $5,000 loan on his retirement plan to help her that first year. By the end of the year, she had earned $30,000. Last year — her 10th in business — her annual revenue was $250,000.

“My husband always tells me I was the best investment he ever made,” Cohen says.

Cohen has since franchised across the United States, and more than 300 Homeowner Referral Networks (HRN) operate nationwide. She sells start-up business packages to people who want to open their own HRN for between $2,000 and $6,000.

–By Cristina Ramirez

On the net : www.homeownersreferral.com

About the Subject

WHO: Debra M. Cohen, of Hewlett, New York

WHAT: Went from stay-at-home mom to Home Remedies of NY

INSPIRATION: Watching “Designers’ Challenge” & “Design on a Dime”

…Home Remedies of NY serves as a liaison between the homeowner and contractor through the course of the job…

from article in Newsday.com – March 2007

SMALL BUSINESS: Taking care of business – and


May 28, 2007

“Whenever I’m stressed out about something out of my control, I go to work,” says Debra Cohen, president of Home Remedies
of NY Inc. (homeownersreferral.com), a Hewlett-based referral service that connects homeowners with contractors.

Cohen, who has daughters 7 and 11 years old, started her home-based business in 1997 after leaving a job as vice president of a Spanish-language aviation magazine.

Home Remedies was formed out of “personal necessity,” explains Cohen, who was having trouble finding reliable contractors after she and her husband bought a home. Guessing other homeowners might be facing the same problem, she took out a $5,000 loan against her husband’s teachers retirement fund to launch the business. Her hunch was right, and she was able to pay it back within six months. The company now boasts sales in excess of $100,000, she says.

Being a mom and entrepreneur is truly a “juggling act,” notes Cohen, 39. She says it helps if you have some type of support system, be it a spouse, a parent or even another mom you can trade off with.

from article in Remodeling Magazine – February 2006

Refer Madness

Trolling for business online has never been so tempting—or so overwhelming.

Source: REMODELING Magazine

Publication date: 2006-02-01

By Leah Thayer

Could it be any easier for homeowners to find home improvement contractors? Only if the online referral industry maintains its current torrid growth rate. Having emerged in the 1990s and then largely imploded in the dot-com bust, this industry is back and bigger than ever. Hundreds of services exist today, from national behemoths that “match” contractors and consumers automatically to one-person companies that know every client by name.

To homeowners, online referral services promise an antidote to the dangers of hiring unknown, unreliable, and possibly unlawful contractors. Most are free to consumers.

To contractors, they promise to deliver leads, customers, and growth. Sometimes they do: Several remodelers we interviewed credit the services with their success and longevity. Sometimes they don’t: We also heard terms ranging from “inept” to “criminal” to describe a few services, and “crappy” to “dead” — quite literally — to describe the leads they deliver.

For better or worse, the online referral industry is here to stay, and it’s evolving in ways that could benefit homeowners and remodelers alike. Here’s a snapshot of four variations on the online referral model and of several remodelers that have used them successfully. To summarize their advice:

  • Be selective. “Find one or two services that work well for you, and stick with them,” says one remodeler. “If you get greedy and go with more, you’re just asking for a disaster.”
  • Know what you’re getting into, and how to get out of it if you’re unsatisfied with the results.
  • Manage your accounts aggressively. “It’s not a passive situation for the contractor,” says one industry insider.
    “You have to work it” to turn those leads into clients.

3. Neighborhood Networks

“Nothing’s as good as word of mouth,” says Noah Blumberg, president of Ark Contracting, Chevy Chase, Md. For his money, the best way to get in front of qualified homeowners is a local “homeowner referral network” (HRN) run by people who know their market, their contractors, and their homeowners. The company Blumberg uses has landed him projects as big as $250,000. “They’ve been mostly good-size jobs,” he notes, “but also the people have been really good, just nice people who are easy to work with.”

HRNs are to the national services what microbrews are to Budweiser: locally owned, carefully cultivated, sometimes quirky, and relatively expensive. Serving areas as small as a neighborhood to as large as a few states, they typically have no upfront fees and charge contractors only for jobs they actually produce, using a commission model. More than 400 operate in the U.S. and elsewhere, says Debra Cohen, who created the model, sells the business plans, and runs her own HRN on New York’s Long Island.

What’s the advantage of the HRN model? “It’s a personal relationship,” Cohen says. As with the national referral services, contractors must meet basic screening criteria. Unlike the big companies, HRN owners typically interview contractors in person, getting to know “their quirks and strengths, and the same thing for homeowners,” Cohen explains. Both parties benefit, for instance, if the homeowner is forewarned that the remodeler looks a little rough around the edges. Similarly helpful is telling the remodeler that the homeowner has certain concerns or characteristics.

Most importantly, Cohen asserts, the leads are qualified. “You’re not going to just get someone who’s surfing the Internet and says, ‘Hmm, six months from now I might want to remodel my kitchen.’”




Locally operated. Prescreened, personally qualified local leads. No job, no fee. HRN staff facilitate communication with homeowners before, during, and after job.


Fewer leads than automated services deliver. Commissions are generally higher than flat lead fees. Network owners we spoke to charge between 2% and 15% of project price, depending on their market and the project size.

Quotes from article
in For Me – February 2006

It’s easy to dream about starting your own company when you’re stuck in a gloomy office with your boss breathing down your neck: You could make your own hours and never have to wear another stuffy suit. While most people just talk about heading out on their own, these women found that their impulse to create a startup was too strong to ignore.

Debra Cohen, 38, Hewlett, NY

Company: Home Remedies

Debra’s company is a Homeowner Referral Network (a term she’s trademarked) that helps clients find trusted contractors to work on their homes. She’s served more than 500 clients, and wrote a book that she sells to people who want to start a Homeowner Referral Network in their area. Today there are 400 of them.

The Spark. Ten years ago, Debra left her publishing job, moved into a house in a new town and was expecting her first child. “I didn’t know who to call or trust to work on the house,” she remembers. “I realized that if I was facing this challenge, other people must be too.”

How She Pulled it Off. Debra took a $5,000 loan against her husband’s teacher retirement fund, and paid it back in six months.

The Best Part. “There have been times when I’ve matched people with services they couldn’t find on their own,” Debra says. “One woman wanted to get her wood paneling refinished, but she couldn’t find the right person. I had someone, and she was so pleased with his work that she sent me flowers.”

from article in Small Business Computing – July 2005

Don’t Hire, Outsource

By Gerry Blackwell

July 5, 2005

Like many successful entrepreneurs, Debra Cohen, founder and proprietor of Home Remedies of New York Inc., a home improvement contract referral business, had to discover her own secrets to success. Unlike most, Cohen now shares her secrets with others — for a price. Her lucrative second business is The Home Referral Network (HRN), a company that sells a business manual, software, forms and services to people who want to start identical home-referral businesses in their own communities.

One of the secrets Cohen learned early — or perhaps knew instinctively — and now passes on to her HRN owners — is how to deal with the computer stuff. Computers, it turns out, are vital even for such a high-touch, low-tech business as hers. “Before I started the business, I wouldn’t say
I was computer illiterate,” she says, “but my knowledge was very limited. I had never been on the Internet, for instance. Now I’m developing my own Web software. I’ve come a long way.”

>>View complete article online

from article in First, April 2005


“I turned a crisis into a steady source of income!”

Bad news, ma’am. I think I spotted a carpenter ant in your basement,” the exterminator said. “But don’t worry–I
can spray the whole house for $900.”

Did he just say $900? Debra Cohen didn’t know which was worse: that her new home might be infested or that this exterminator (the one who had stood her up for two prior appointments) might be swindling her family when they were struggling to pay the mortgage. Sensing he wasn’t trustworthy, she crossed him off her list and resumed her search for a reliable exterminator.

This wasn’t the first time Debra felt overwhelmed by the task of locating home-repair workers. A busy mom in a new town, she had no one to ask for referrals, so she was forced to pick names out of the yellow pages.

Finally, Debra found a reliable specialist to check into those “phantom” ants–not to mention remove the squirrels from her attic. She assumed he wouldn’t be available for weeks, so she was surprised when he said, “I can do the job tomorrow. I’m a great exterminator but a lousy self-promoter.” That’s when her entrepreneurial mind started turning.

“I spared other homeowners my past stress!”

Debra began screening local pros, checking their references, licenses and Better Business Bureau ratings. “I asked much more than the typical homeowner would ask when they were stressing out about an overflowing toilet!” She invited the best to join her Homeowner Referral Network. (They’d pay her a commission for every referral.) Three days after sending out her first advertising mailers, Debra was swamped with calls from people who wanted to be connected (for free!) with top-notch workers to refinish floors, paint murals, hang fixtures…. Her home-based business was a hit! In the first year, Debra repaid her $5,000 small-business loan and grossed nearly $30,000–without missing a beat with her kids! She has even sold her business concept to nearly 400 other entrepreneurial folks. “A few years ago I worried that we’d have to sell our house, but now we’re remodeling every room!”

from article in Remodeling, April 2005


Local Leaders

HRNs differ from national referral services in several ways, says Cohen. Where bigger services make money by charging contractors listing and/or lead fees, contractors pay HRNs only for jobs they actually complete, based on a prenegotiated percentage of the job cost. The national services “could get one lead and send it to 20 contractors and still get their lead fee,” she says, regardless of whether the contractor gets or even wants the job.

HRNs are also “a very local, personal, concierge-type service,” Cohen explains. “If I’m in New York, whywould I call a service based in Ohio to tell me about local contractors?” Looking good on paper — or not being polished in person, for that matter — has little bearing on the actual remodeling experience, she says. “I can tell a homeowner, ‘This guy is upstanding. He has hair down to his arm and one eye that wanders and he drives a beat-up truck, but there’s no need to worry when he knocks on your door.”


from article in Working Mother, April 2004


Launching a Home Business

First, Debra Cohen needed her own house-repair pro. Now she’ll find one for you.

By Jennifer Gill

You could say Debra Cohen owes her business to a pregnant squirrel. Several years ago, Cohen and her husband, Charlie, were at their wits’ end with a feisty squirrel living in the attic of their 75-year-old Tudor in Hewlett, NY. Twice the couple had brought in pest pros, only to have the critter show up again (mama squirrels, it turns out, like to nest in the same spot year after year).

Cohen refused to let the squirrel win. She called in a third pest-control guy, and this time found a rodent master. Not only did he get rid of the squirrel, he explained that removing the attic fan would seal the room and fix the problem for good. Cohen was thrilled-finally, no more uninvited guests!-but also peeved that the other “specialists” hadn’t made the same suggestion. Finding reliable people to work on your home shouldn’t be a game of hit-or-miss, she thought. As the squirrel guy packed his things, Cohen floated an idea by him. “If I found you work,” she proposed, “would you pay me a commission?” His reply” Absolutely. Who would pass up a good job?

The conversation stuck with Cohen, and in 1997 she started Home Remedies of New York, a referral service that matches dependable home-improvement pros with people who need their help. And who doesn’t? Everyone has a handyman horror story: the plumber who goes MIA halfway through the job; the careless painter who drips primer all over your antique rug. Within six months, Cohen’s home-bases referral business was turning a profit, and today she earns $90,000 a year lining up jobs for her 100-strong army of specialists, everyone from electricians to chimney sweeps.

from article in Priority, March – April 2003

Smart Growth

ISSUE: Your company is growing too fast. How do you keep from getting swallowed by this million-pound monster?

UPSHOT: Start with the basics (outsourcing), then get radical: consider Business in a Box.

Debra Cohen knows how hard it is to find a good home contractor. So when she finds one, she tells people. In 1996, when the stay-at-home mom and her husband were remodeling their home, she had an epiphany:
She could work out of her house by brokering the services of contractors in return for a commission. The following year, Cohen launched the Homeowner Referral Network (www.homereferralbiz.com).

The company was an immediate success–thanks, in part, to articles about Cohen’s business in New York Newsday and other publications. “The phone didn’t stop ringing,” she says. The calls came not only from potential customers but also from people who wanted to learn how to run similar businesses. Six months after launch, the business had grown so much that Cohen knew she couldn’t handle it on her own.

In order to focus on her clients, she outsourced jobs such as printing, mailing and accounting. Cohen hired a Web designer to launch a site (and created a Web Affiliate Program establishing links with other Web sites). She then explored her options.

“I received calls from people who wanted to partner with me, so I first thought about franchising and hired a franchise consultant,” she says. “But that turned out to be a big mistake. My business is small, and there isn’t a lot of overhead. If I got into franchising, I would have to hire staff.”

Cohen hired another consultant, and they came up with the Business in a Box. Rather than franchise or expand her business, Cohen would teach other people to set up their own home-referral companies. “Everything I’ve done is textbook, and yet people kept
asking me how I did it,” she says. After a positive response to some market research about the idea, Cohen took the plunge.

With a friend from Wharton business school, Cohen wrote “The Complete Guide to Owning and Operating a Successful Homeowner Referral Network”, which outlines every aspect of the business. Based on the model of a franchise manual, the book “created a system for my business that anyone else could handle,” she says. Cohen sells the manual as part of various packages, which include consulting time with her, access to leads from her company’s Web site, and more.

Now Cohen spends 50 percent of her time on her spinoff business. As a home-business coach, she’s had more than 250 clients. “To see them succeed has been the most gratifying part of it all,” she says.