Lone Eagles Soar on Dreams of a Business at Home

by Jane Fritz
Copyright 1996 © Sandpoint Magazine

Climbing four flights of stairs, I reach the windmill tower slightly out of breath. The view of the lake, Schweitzer Basin, and green forests in every direction is breathtaking, too.

It's a place fit for "lone eagles" - the name the business community has bestowed on those hardy entrepreneurs who have flown from the corporate life to launch their own small businesses from home.

In Sandpoint's case, that most often means a home in the country. And Elizabeth and Steve Willey, the owners of the tower, may typify the trend here.

Their alternative-energy powered home 15 miles outside Sandpoint is also a bustling place of business. Just inside the front door is a small retail shop that offers many of the products sold in the Willey's mail-order catalog business, Backwoods Solar Electric Systems. The Willeys offer an array of equipment for solar-, wind- and water-powered energy systems used mostly for homes beyond reach of electric hookups.

You could say the Willeys were lone eagles before the trend was even identified - they've been building their home business for more than 15 years.

But now more and more people are following suit. Debbie Ferguson, who's an associate broker for Panhandle Realty and an economic development specialist, says thanks to technological advances with computers, fax machines and the Internet, people can now operate high-dollar businesses from their homes.

And for entrepreneurs with the skills to go it alone, Sandpoint offers a great lifestyle with low crime and no big-city hassles. "It doesn't make sense," Ferguson says, "for people to live in a place that doesn't have those attributes if they can make the same amount of money in a much better place like Sandpoint."

The in-migration of the lone eagles has created its own small niche in the local real estate market, some real estate agents say.

The kind of real estate most lone eagles are searching for is typically a ranchette, according to Tom D'Orazi, co-owner of the ShowRoom Public Real Estate Market. "They look for something a little bit more rural since they're sick of being in the city," he says. The majority are looking for developed rural property with 5 to 10 acres and a house.

Katherine Tacke, a labor market analyst with the Idaho Department of Employment, confirms the trend. Idaho has no statistics, but a recent study at Washington State University estimates that 2,600 of these entrepreneurial business types are moving into neighboring Washington state each year to set up home businesses. Tacke believes the number of lone eagles nesting in Idaho will also continue to grow.

For the Willeys, Steve's interest in alternative energy is what made their home business possible. The power company wanted $24,000 to bring electricity to their remote home, so he designed a wind and solar system. Soon, "I was teaching classes at night in Sandpoint about energy self-sufficiency," he says. "It wasn't long before neighbors and other people started knocking on our door asking how to put up a windmill or where they could get a solar panel."

Steve eventually quit his town job to develop the home business full-time. Elizabeth soon joined him. Their first mail-order catalog featured 15 items. Today they have a worldwide mailing list of 20,000 names and sell more than 500 products grossing in the low seven figures annually. All of the mail-order activity is managed on the third level of their home using computers, fax and answering machines, and multiple phone lines. Despite their remote location, technology has given them an edge for success.

Working at home has some drawbacks for the Willeys. There are often daily visitors, especially in the summertime. And the phones frequently are ringing well past 5 p.m. Elizabeth says managing a home business as big as Backwoods Solar in a remote, rural area is challenging for two reasons. First, local zoning ordinances haven't kept up with the growing trend of doing business from home. Lone eagles like the Willeys can't legally hire employees to help with their home business. Second, working out of home can make having private time a rare experience.

But Elizabeth says the advantage of living and working at home is far greater than any of the disadvantages.

At the end of another backcountry road outside of Clark Fork is the home of Brian and Susan D'Aoust, who moved here six years ago from Seattle after searching for the right place to live and work.

An accomplished research marine biologist and owner of a successful manufacturing business, Brian set up shop in an outbuilding on their 40-acre property. Subsequently, his home-based company, Common Sensing, Inc., is doing quite well. The electronic apparatus that Brian manufactures is used for measuring dissolved gases in water for aquacultural uses and at dams around the world.

It can be a challenging obstacle when the roads are bad due to weather and a trip to town or to the airport is necessary. But Brian sees no other drawbacks to running his business from such a remote location. He was also surprised to discover that there were plenty of other lone eagles in the area with which to work.

"I have been amazed at the talent I've found out here," he says. "I was fully resigned to the fact that for any new engineering, I'd be going back to Seattle. I've found everything I need right here, plus."

Political cartoonist Bill Mitchell is one of the newest lone eagles to try out his wings in the area. He and his wife have been here just over a year. They are still looking to buy the right property, but Mitchell is already working out of the home.

He left a good position with the Gannett newspaper chain in Rochester, N.Y., to come here. While he's still experimenting with making a living in political cartooning on the Internet (his weekly cartoon commentary is published by Excite, a popular search engine), he plans to stay in North Idaho if he can manage the technology in his favor.

"The Internet is growing and changing by the day," Mitchell says, "so there's a steep learning curve. If I don't keep up, I'll be left behind."

More lone eagles will be flying into North Idaho, Ferguson predicts. "The trend will continue because of corporate downsizing and available technology," she says. "Those people who are entrepreneurial spirits will end up in places like this." ·

Jane Fritz lone eagles herself, as a radio producer and freelance writer living in Clark Fork. She's former publisher of the Idaho Arts Journal.

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