I have to admit that I loathe direct sales or multi-level marketing sales models. I also have to admit that I have bought a number of products from my friends and social media acquaintances, purely out of obligation. Yep, they got me. As much as I dislike being pitched, I also know that these companies bring valuable opportunities to my friends who work for them.
As a military spouse, I understand the frustration that comes with maintaining a career amid frequent moves. Struggling with changing license requirements and chronic underemployment can take a toll on military families’ wallets as well as the spouse’s sense of purpose and independence. I understand why many people turn to a portable, flexible job (like direct sales) that can be done from home. Home-based businesses—I get it.
The Department of Defense is making it easier for military spouses (and theoretically, service members as well) to operate businesses out of their homes on base. In a memo released in late September, clarification was given that will allow businesses to operate in base housing going forward.
“Military exchanges may be the ‘primary’ resale activity on installations for certain items, but that doesn’t mean they’re the ‘exclusive’ retailer,” Military Times said of the memorandum. In the past, businesses that sold goods or services also available at the military exchanges were not able to operate as they were seen as competition. The memo also clarifies the difference between a business that “supplements” and one that “competes” with those services.
What was the Rule?
In the past, small businesses that sold goods also available at the exchange, commissary, or through the morale, welfare, and recreation department were often not able to operate because they were seen as competing with the established stores. Every home-based business needed to get approval from the installation commander before opening up shop. The commanders had to consider if the business could be competition for the military exchange stores, grocery commissaries, or the morale, welfare, and recreation program.
While the government-affiliated stores remain the primary retail locations, the new memo clarifies that small businesses can also operate. The important distinction now is that the small business does not “threaten the economic viability of the installation” program or retailer.
The memo provided two examples that commanders could use as benchmarks on what was considered approvable. In-home piano lessons and home-based sales of cosmetics were both considered “nonthreatening” to the larger retailers on base.
The previous guidance as well as the new changes do not apply to businesses that operate exclusively online or to those individuals who work remotely from a home on base. Those stationed overseas still have to comply with the Status of Forces Agreement between the State Department and the host country, which varies by location.
Still Some Inconsistency
The decision to allow a home-based business to operate “still rests with the installation commanders,” so some room for interpretation remains. This is a step towards recognizing the value that entrepreneurs bring to the larger military community, but some want more consistency between bases.
Sue Hoppin, president of the National Military Spouse Network, says that military spouses are “not frustrated that commanders have the authority,” but that spouses dislike “the inconsistency in the interpretation.” Just as licensing requirements that vary from state-to-state can keep spouses from maintaining career continuity, what is allowed from base-to-base can also slow the growth of a new business. Changing commanders can also change what is allowed, even on the same base.
“This may never [get] to the top three issues that a commander has to deal with, but for the spouse it may be their top issue,” said Hoppin. It “may be the difference between being able to feed their family or paying for child care. It matters.”
The prohibition on operating a home-based business has kept many military families from living in base housing. Lauren Hope of Hope Design said that the inconsistency in what was allowed kept her family from living on base. “We chose to live off base at Fort Leavenworth,” she told Military Times. “I couldn’t jeopardize my business and my income.”
Recently, I participated in a roundtable discussion about the challenges of growing and operating a military spouse owned company. This article reports on part of the discussion. This article features @NMSNetwork and Lauren Hope of Hope Design Ltd. https://t.co/lV3nEzsyQ1 pic.twitter.com/cwL3zcTdsY
— Anna Blanch Rabe (@AMBRabe) October 15, 2018
A Round of Applause from All
Organizations like the National Military Spouse Network and the Military Officers’ Association of America (MOAA) see this latest memo as a victory for military spouses interested in maintaining fulfilling careers as part of a military lifestyle.
“Because of their mobile lifestyles, many military spouses have chosen the entrepreneurship route to be more in control of their careers,” said Associate Director of Military Spouse and Family Advocacy at MOAA Eryn Wagnon. “It is encouraging to see DoD view military spouse small businesses as an asset to installations rather than competition. By making this clarification, DoD is aiding in tearing down barriers to their successes and is recognizing that military spouses make valuable contributions to their communities.”
Military spouse unemployment and underemployment has also gotten attention from higher up in the government. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce studied the issue in the 2017 Military Spouses in the Workplace survey as part of the Hiring Our Heroes initiative. Congress requested the DoD generate a report on home-based business options for military spouses as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
If, like me, you dislike direct sales, you may be dismayed that they seem like they are here to stay. But if, like me, you want to give military spouses every opportunity to develop their own careers and help their family’s budget, you can overlook the salesy part and just celebrate the win for a group that faces numerous employment hurdles.