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Home is What You Make It

Architect turned online entrepreneur aims to change lives, one tiny house at a time.

Jay Shafer never has a typical day. Since designing and living in his first “tiny house” in 1997, his life has been forever changed, and now he works to help emancipate others from a life of excess space with his business, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.

Shafer built his first tiny home on a utility trailer while he was a professor in Iowa. He says the idea to live in a small space came from a personal—as well as a financial—decision. He was concerned about the impact of large houses on the environment and realized they contained a lot of unused space.

From inspiration to a job he can love

Inspired by architect Lester Walker, Shafer taught himself to design and built his first tiny home, which measured just 89 square feet, according to his website. He dubbed it “Tumbleweed.” Soon enough, Shafer realized he wasn’t the only one who wanted to live with less, so he started the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.

“I quit being a professor and began doing what I love, which is designing tiny houses for others, full time,” Shafer says.

“I love creating a place where people get a sense of home, be it a house, a book or a website”

To share his ideas, he wrote The Small House Book, and sold it through Amazon and his own website. In his book, Shafer advertises 22 of his home designs, which range in size from 64 square feet to 840 square feet, and he explains how to build them for less than $20,000. He recently published a second book, Backyard Sheds and Tiny Houses, and is working on getting it into stores for wider distribution.

Perhaps Shafer is more of an online marketer than your usual online seller, but he doesn’t just sell books about his home ideas. He also sells detailed plans for each tiny house, do-it-yourself kits and even takes orders for ready-made portable homes for those who don’t want to build their own. Workshops across the nation are also available for those who want to learn how to build a tiny home, and spots can be reserved through his website.

It might be safe to say that what Shafer is really selling is freedom and an understanding of what “home” really means.

“I love creating a place where people get a sense of home, be it a house, a book or a website,” he says. “That’s all I’m ever really doing in my business.”

To continue promoting what creates that sense of home, Shafer uses social sites like Pinterest and Facebook to encourage idea-sharing and creative, attractive and efficient home design.

Making home meaningful

Judging by the way we live today—thanks to new technologies and tougher economies—Shafer has tapped into something that resonates with Americans. He says his customers often want to reduce their carbon footprint or cut some excess in their life.

“It seems like most of my customers have a strong sense of purpose in their lives,” Shafer says. “A lot of them seem to be on some sort of mission that requires time and energy that might otherwise be lost to house cleaning and toiling to pay off a mortgage.”

“I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur in anything, but it’s my passion to design small houses”

Utility costs are much lower than those of a larger home, but property costs are also minimal or nonexistent because his tiny houses are built on trailers and fall outside the requirement of what constitutes a residence. Even if it’s not a permanent home, Shafer’s designs are functional as guest houses, art studios, offices and fashionable campers.

What makes a great home is that thing which makes one feel at home, Shafer says. For himself, what’s important is that the place feels familiar, so he uses a lot of archetypal forms in his designs that symbolize home. But he stresses that it’s important to only hold on to the essential elements of one’s life, and no extras.

“When you’re in a place where everything’s essential, life itself feels more meaningful,” he says.

To live and inspire

The first step to living in a tiny house is the hardest because it requires self-reflection and identifying what one needs to truly be happy, he says. But once people escape the burden of excess possessions and the costs of maintaining a larger home, they feel liberated.

By living minimally for almost 15 years, Shafer hopes to be an example and to inspire others to love a simple life in a small space.

“I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur in anything, but it’s my passion to design small houses,” Shafer says.

By utilizing the Web to promote and sell his small-living ideas, Shafer is able to focus on those things he really enjoys, and it makes him happy to promote the opposite of waste.

Sure, he might not be able to ship his product in a box, like most online sellers, but what Shafer does harkens back to the days when we could order homes from catalogs, which really isn’t much different from ordering one through the Internet.

Visit Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.

About the author

Sarah Brown
Sarah Brown is a freelance writer who writes about e-commerce and small businesses. She recently graduated from Chico State with a journalism degree and is also a budding online entrepreneur, having launched two Web businesses and her own line of handmade products. Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

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