If you're a mom who works outside the home, chances are you've envisioned this scenario: You bail out of your life-sapping 9-to-5 existence to start your own business; you toil at home while your baby dutifully sleeps and your toddler plays quietly nearby; you work when you like, for whom you like; and that nasty four-letter word -- boss -- is out of your vocabulary for good.
Fantasy or reality? A little of each, according to experts in self-employment. Starting your own home-based business can be liberating and lucrative -- if you've got the right stuff to make it happen. But if you don't, it can be a disaster: personally, professionally, and financially.
So whether you're in the workforce and looking for a change or you're a stay-at-home mom who wants to make money (without committing to a real "job"), there's plenty to think about before you take the leap. Not everyone is cut out to go solo, but many of those who succeed claim they'd never go back to a traditional work environment. Below, some key questions you need to explore to determine whether your work-at-home fantasy could actually come true.
What are your marketable skills? If you're already in the workforce, your current job responsibilities and the skills and talents they require are the best starting point for self-assessment. "You should be prepared to do a lot of brainstorming," says Ellen Parlapiano, co-author of Mompreneurs Online: Using the Internet to Build Work@Home Success (Perigee, 2001). "Don't limit yourself to the obvious options."
Sure, a corporate lawyer could easily start a mediating business, or a chef might strike out on her own as a caterer. But you should consider how your talents can take you in less expected directions as well. For instance, if you're a secretary with great people skills and a talent for turning chaos into order, you could easily be a freelance administrative assistant, but you could also be a great professional organizer -- two very different jobs that require similar skills.
Start by making a list of the tasks you perform in your most recent job, and ask yourself which ones you enjoy the most. Are you happiest when you're solving problems or when you're coming up with something new? Do you crave interaction with a variety of people, or are you more solitary? Think about how you want your workday to feel, then look for a business that fits not only your skill base but also your temperament.
Start-up ideas don't always come from past work experience. Parlapiano says an increasing number of women are tapping into their hobbies, talents, and parenting experience. The Internet has clearly fueled that trend by creating virtual marketplaces where women can sell their goods and services with minimal start-up capital -- generally far less than conventional businesses require. On the Web, small companies can look larger than they really are, and an entrepreneur with the most minuscule marketing budget can have national -- even international -- exposure almost overnight.
Also, consider that someone else may have already created the perfect home-business opportunity for you. Franchising, home selling, and multilevel marketing are all variations of the same business theme: You market and sell someone else's brand-name products or services. Typically, you'll pay an up-front fee that covers the cost of licensing, products, and training. The advantage: If you affiliate yourself with a reputable company, you'll have the support of a large organization behind you. The downside: This industry is loaded with scam artists (see "Work-at-Home Scams"). So it's important to conduct a thorough investigation before committing time and money.
Regardless of how you settle upon a business concept, you'll need to do plenty of homework before you launch. "The more research you do, the more likely you are to succeed," says Priscilla Huff, author of 101 Best Home-Based Businesses for Women (Prima, 1998). "Some women I've spoken to have taken a full year to lay the groundwork for a new business, and it really pays off." The Web is a great research tool, and it can give you invaluable "big picture" information on your industry. Traditional sources, such as your local chamber of commerce, local library, and economic-development office, can provide reliable demographic data on your community.