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Posted March 5, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Tuscan treasures: Local entrepreneur builds online business by following dream

By Josette Keelor --

FRONT ROYAL -- Like many people, Mary Freeland has been concerned about her financial future. The Front Royal resident worried about whether she would be able to retire, and if she would struggle with money the way her mother, a stay-at-home mom, did as her retirement funding dwindled year after year.

Unlike many other people who take on an extra job to pay the bills when faced with the prospect of a frightening and uncertain future, Freeland chose to follow her dream: She began an at-home business selling Tuscan-style furniture over the Internet.

The fact that she was a novice in the field did not bother her.

"I don't have a design past, I just like it," she says. "I'm a serial redecorate, remodeler. ... I'm a junkie, I confess."

Beginning the Internet-based Tuscan Home Decor and Design seemed like the perfect way to make money while helping others share in her love of decorating with Tuscan-style pieces. The fact that it helps her save for the future is icing on the cake -- or a glycerin preservative coating on a handmade wreath from Oregon.

Freeland dug right in.

"Originally I cast a big net -- I'll carry everything," she says of her initial thinking in late 2007. But when you carry everything you can't give the kind of advice you can when you specialize, she says. So, in November she launched a new Web site, one that focuses on the Tuscan theme, with some Mediterranean style mixed in.

"It's really been a good thing for the business," she says. "It's just been a positive move all around."

Though most businesses offer an online side of their company -- a Web site listing information, items for sale and personal interaction with managers or owners -- Freeland's business is entirely Internet-based.

"I have a full-time job," she says of her government career. "I need something that I can do around my schedule. If I want to work on my business at 1:30 in the morning, I can work on my business at 1:30 in the morning."

The availability is great for her clients as well.

"The Internet's 24/7, so it's really great. ... The portability, if I go anywhere all I have to do is take my laptop."

Part of what motivated her decision to go into business for herself was being able to help others buy beautiful, stylized furniture and decorations for a good price.

One of the main benefits on both sides of the sale is that without having to factor in a "brick and mortar" location, the items are much less costly for Freeland and for her clients.

"I don't have to invest in inventory," she explains. All the merchandise is shipped directly from each merchandiser's warehouse.

"The whole idea is it is about the customer," she says. "There are a lot of us who do it." The benefit is the repeat business.

Information is the most important part of having an online business, she says, because she cannot interact with customers on a face-to-face basis.

"I think that where I excel in the online world is I tell you all you could possibly need to know," she says. "I ask the questions that I would need to ask if I were someone else." In the merchandise descriptions she give sizes and measurements, she indicates whether or not a piece is made from solid wood.

"What it's made out of, that's a big deal," she says.

If the client still has questions, she welcomes phone calls at any hour -- another benefit of being online.

"If I'm up and they call, I answer it," she says.

"I want people to be pleased with what they bought," she says. "I want them to feel like they've gotten [value] for the money that they spent."

Many of the decorations in her own home are pieces from the collections she sells, such as a solid birch sugar chest by Cooper Classics and a Belinda Miley shadowbox featuring crosses.

She sells exactly what she would enjoy buying for herself.

"Everybody tells me I'm very, very different, but in my mind everybody does this," she says. Some people go back to school to gain knowledge for a new career; others start a home business, she explains.

"As long as you're doing something you love, to me that's huge value."

Her new Web site, www.tuscanhomedecoranddesign.com, has expanded to include other features as well.

For the near future she is planning a monthly newsletter for conveying information about featured discounted products and new products, as well as Italian recipes and a reference to her blog.

Visitors will be encouraged to share recipes on "Foodie Wednesday," and a travel section might be in the works for Mondays, she says.

Though spreading the word about the business will always be important, what Freeland most hopes for is repeat customers -- those people who just love coming to the Web site and hanging out, and those, like her, who enjoy furnishing their entire houses with fun, quality furniture and knickknacks.

"It's just opened up a lot of possibilities and it's exciting," she says. "It's more about the relationship for me. The money is great, but it's a bit of the relationships."

The Tuscan style is her preference, but she says the nice thing about the furniture she sells is that one well-placed piece can work so well with many other styles. Though her living room screams Italy, the adjoining dining room features an American Southern-style country table. She likes that it doesn't have to be one way or the other. She can express all her interests at the same time, and they work well together.

Of course, tomorrow it could all be different, she says, explaining another love -- redecorating.

Whether she makes it big in the design and decorating business or simply makes a few friends along the way, she doesn't know, but she is excited for the opportunity to find out.

"I like my day job, but the job I do right now," she says, smiling -- "way more fun."

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