In the midst of the pandemic, homeschooling skyrocketed. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the proportion of American families home-schooling at least one child grew from 5.4% in spring 2020 to 11.1% in fall 2021.
As those trends establish homeschooling as an option for many families, Sarah Harmeling of Waldo, a small community in Sheboygan County, is ideally positioned to capitalize on her niche business, Homeschool Art Box. Harmeling, a finalist in the NEW Launch Alliance Pitch Contest, founded the business in June 2019.
“I was always interested in art and had a background in that so I fell naturally into that role in our homeschooling co-op,” she said. “When the teacher who was in charge of art left, I took over his position and taught art from birth to eighth grade. That’s what got me into teaching art. I found my own style of teaching and what I like doing, what was important to learn, and what engaged the kids the most.”
Harmeling, a homeschooling mother of seven children ranging in age from six to 22, enjoyed her role. She found it rewarding to share this skill with the 15 to 20 families who were part of the co-op, and said that she thought about taking it further.
“We would look at an artist,” she commented. “And I would mull the idea around in my head that someday I could turn this into a business.”
With her homeschooling and co-op responsibilities, finding the time to do so was a challenge. Although she has a degree in occupational therapy, she had decided to be a stay-at-home mother. Earlier, when she had fewer children, she had a successful sewing and alterations business, but had to stop as more children were added to the family.
In early 2018, she started to take her idea more seriously. Harmeling dug in to find out what an e-commerce business would entail. She spent time doing online tutorials and educated herself on the type of hosting and website that would be needed.
“I never did a formal business plan, but I did some online courses that were offered by the Small Business Development Center,” Harmeling said.
Social media was a particular concern because she hadn’t used it much and knew it would be an important part of her marketing. With the tutorials and help from one of her older children, she learned how to join homeschooling groups on Facebook, collect emails from people who might be interested in the art boxes, and start building her brand.
“I started slow and was comfortable with that,” she said. “I was still homeschooling and wasn’t ready to have it take over my life. My goals for growth have been dependent on how much time I had, and I am looking more long term.”
The outlook for the long term looks very positive. Research showed her that there is very little competition in this space. There are some boxes that have basic art projects, but Harmeling has focused on teaching students about the most influential artists of all time covering art history from ancient to modern times.
Each box, intended for grades one to eight, includes an educational newsletter about an artist or art movement, full-color prints to study the artwork, step-by-step instructions for a related, creative art project, and art supplies to completed the project. Boxes are designed to be sold on a subscription basis with nine different boxes to cover the school year.
“I decided on the subscription model to develop a reoccurring customer base. And knowing what I knew about homeschools and parents, I knew it was often difficult for homeschool families to implement on their own unless they really loved art. There wasn’t much out there to make it simple for parents,” Harmeling explained.
Individual boxes can be purchased, but the focus is on adding subscribers. From the initial start, where she sold 25 subscriptions the first year, she grew to 50 the next, and is projecting 100 this year. The additional subscribers also mean more work, and as she looks forward, she considers what it will look like to hire an employee.
In the interim, Harmeling takes on the roles of content creator, writer, social media updater, planner, administrator, packager, and shipper. Her children provide some assistance, but it is a challenge as the business grows. There have also been some additional costs.
“Shipping has gone up, and instead of doing priority shipping, I switched to regular,” she said. Given the situation in our country right now, people are understanding of that. I am using the USPS right now, but am considering others. Printing costs have also gone way up and that has been another concern.”
There may be some savings, however, as she implements growth plans. She will be purchasing a high-quality printer and purchasing some supplies from wholesalers. It has been a learning process.
“Almost everything about running a business online was new to me,” Harmeling said. “My sewing business was in person. Now I don’t deal face to face with any one unless I’m going to a conference. I’m glad I didn’t pressure myself to grow too big, too fast and have learned this in chunks that allowed me to grow while homeschooling my family.”
As she sees her idea become a reality, she compliments the NEW Launch Alliance Pitch Contest where she competed in Green Bay for giving her the confidence to move ahead. The business is growing and goals are being set.
“In five years, I would love to be providing an income for my family that is more of a full-time income,” she said.
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.