Some of the most unusual businesses in Champaign-Urbana don't have a storefront. You can't find them downtown or on campus. You probably won't even notice them as you drive by.
But they're there — maybe dozens of them — hidden away in the towns' residential neighborhoods. Some of them do business online or by word of mouth. Others operate a lot like traditional businesses, with clients and walk-ins.
Registrations for home-based businesses spiked in Urbana last year and had another strong year in 2013. While city officials only collected on average three new registrations per year from 2008 to 2011, they received seven in 2012 and another five this year.
That makes at least a dozen new businesses in Urbana in the past two years that you might have never noticed. Most are home offices for services like software or corrosion consulting.
Others have more unique purposes. Therapeutic massages in south Urbana. Yarn dyeing just off Florida Avenue near Philo Road. You can get your bicycle fixed in two different places.
An online firearms dealer, Flash Firearms, operates out of an Urbana home.
The owner's application was given special consideration because of the nature of the business, said city planner Jeff Engstrom, and it was approved only under certain conditions. Among those, the owner could not conduct auctions or store sale inventory at his home. He could conduct no walk-in retail business, and all on-site sales would need to be done by special order and appointment only.
The city approved Flash Firearms' application in June 2012. That was before the city required home-based firearms dealers to submit a security plan for the police chief's approval, Engstrom said.
Urbana city officials say they have a couple hundred home business registrations on file — they never expire once they're granted — but they suspect most of those have since gone out of business. Champaign doesn't regulate home-based businesses as closely as Urbana, and therefore does not have a good grasp on how many exist.
Champaign Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight said the city gets roughly one complaint per month about a home business operating outside of the regulations the city has adopted. The city enforces those rules on a complaint basis only.
"I think it's just routine business for us," Knight said. "We made the choice when we developed our home occupation standards to enforce it on a complaint basis, and I think that's worked well."
Among other rules in Champaign, a home business cannot employ anyone who doesn't live there; merchandise cannot be stored outside, nor can it be visible from outside the building; and the owner cannot use more than 25 percent of the home's total area for the business.
Those are just a few of the rules, but if your neighbors don't complain, you're in the clear. If neighbors feud, it can be a project for the city to sort out.
"The ones that take the most time is where there's a war going on between neighbors," Knight said.
Urbana's process can be a bit more involved. Home-based entrepreneurs must pay a $50 application fee and pass a city inspection before they can open.
Neutral Cycle Workshop
Daniel Kamberelis' bicycle shop started in what used to be a dingy garage behind a home at 201 N. Busey Ave., U. There was water leaking through the roof and light shining through the walls, he said.
After a complete remodel and more than $2,000 in electrical work ordered by the city inspector, he now offers custom bicycle work, repairs, cycling products and free air from his well-lighted, well-heated workshop behind his friend's home.
"Anything with wheels, I guess we'll work on," Kamberelis said.
Repairs and used bike sales are the majority of the business he does in the summer. Custom work and overhauls are the bulk of his winter projects.
He spends about eight hours per day in his shop, he said. He usually comes in around 10 a.m. to sweep and light a fire in the stove. His dog Tomi likes to lie near the heat source.
The garage behind the house he was renting was an obvious choice to start a business, he said.
"This was available, and I was already paying for it," he said.
Neutral Cycle is one of the more visible home businesses from the street. It used to have a sign out front before the city told Kamberelis he had to take it down — it was too big under city regulations.
It's not an incredibly profitable enterprise for Kamberelis. He charges his customers just enough so he can pay himself about $10 per hour, he said. That's a lot less than some of the more obvious businesses in town will charge.
"We make money," he said. "It pays the rent, and it pays for itself. A lot of it goes back into the business and expanding."
The workshop has been operating for a year now, and he's now able to keep more inventory on hand. Kamberelis said he just started a Yelp profile and being more active on Facebook to get the word out a bit more. He might look to move the operation to a more traditional business setting some day.
But really, he said, he does it because he is passionate about working on bicycles.
"I think I got a lot of people on bicycles that wouldn't because they couldn't afford to keep it maintained," he said.
Champaign resident Julia Cation is budding with the entrepreneurial spirit. She started feeling it in 2007.
"I kind of started getting the entrepreneurial bug," Cation said. "I felt like that's what I should be doing instead of constantly working toward someone else's goal and someone else's ideas of how to run an organization or business."
So, after discovering a Chicago-based custom fabric handbag business, she set out to start her own.
"I thought it was a cool concept, but I thought I could do it way better," she said. "And I also thought, why not try to do it in leather?"
She went back to school to get her master's in business administration, and spent that time also writing a business plan for what would eventually become Darlington Originals. She designs and makes leather handbags out of her Champaign home.
Her business is unlike some others in that she does not have customers come in to her home. Cation's plan all along was to sell her products online anyway, but retail businesses are not allowed to operate out of residences in Champaign.
She graduated in 2010 and launched her website in December 2011. Since then, she said, it's been an uphill battle.
"I have what's considered high-end in terms of price for sure," she said. "But kind of a luxury item in terms of it's not something that women buy every day. I knew that going in to it, but it's a struggle for sure."
She launched a online fundraising campaign in 2012 to help with promotional efforts for Darlington Originals. She raised $15,000.
"That was definitely a positive thing at a time when I was feeling a little defeated," she said.
But until she gets the business to a place where she's making enough money to do only that, she continues working full time as a communications specialist at the University of Illinois. Balancing her home business with her day job is a struggle, too, she said.
She said finding a home that met the space needs for her business was a "major consideration."
She has some advice for burgeoning entrepreneurs, too: "Listen to your instincts and realize your own vision in terms of what you've set out to do."
One of Urbana's newest home businesses is also likely one of its smallest.
For Chely Jones, making brown sugar scrubs and other spa products is more of a hobby. She mixes them in her own kitchen.
"I gave it away to my friends, and they said, 'Oh, why don't you start a business?'" she said.
Jones also dabbles in greeting cards, place cards, tags, labels and other stationery-type items.
You won't find Simply Chely online, and you're not likely to see an advertisement. Jones sets up at craft shows and sells some of her products for resale at larger stores, but most of her business is done by word-of-mouth.
"I really just want to make it small," she said.
Everything is homemade, including the labels on the jars for her sugar scrubs. She said the labels aren't waterproof yet, but that's something she wants to change.
She's very careful about what goes into her products, she said. All the ingredients are natural, and all her cooking surfaces and jars are disinfected and sterilized before she uses them.
She's only been in business for a couple months now. She does not concern herself with profit, although she said she did better than some of the other vendors at a recent trade show.
She just wants her business to pay for itself.
"It's all just for fun," she said.