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Work-at-Home Success

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.

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Are You Financially Prepared for Self-Employment? If you're currently working outside the home, many experts recommend that you have a year's worth of living expenses squirreled away before starting a business. Of course, not every entrepreneur follows that advice, but most experts agree that at the very least, you need to plan for a few lean months if you're giving up a regular paycheck. "One of the biggest mistakes that people make is not having enough money to get them through the first years," says Beverley Williams, president of the American Association of Home-Based Businesses. "You have to look at your finances and spending habits and then ask how long you can go before you feel the pinch."

Remember that whether you're offering a service or selling a product, you'll need to market yourself to customers, complete the job, and then wait to get paid (30 to 90 days is standard in most industries). At the same time, you'll have start-up costs: office supplies and furniture, computer equipment, child care, and so on (see "Home-Office Essentials" for a list of what you'll need). Therefore, it is prudent to clean up your personal balance sheet and optimize your credit rating. Pay off any high-interest credit cards; this will give you a fresh start and more clout with potential lenders. The bad news is that no matter how fiscally attractive you look, it can be tough to get a loan from your local bank; start-up capital is notoriously difficult to come by. You might, however, try a Small Business Administration lender with access to microloan funds or one of several microloan funds designed for women, such as Count-Me-In.

Many home-based entrepreneurs minimize the initial financial stress by running their business part-time and keeping their day job to finance the venture, an arrangement that can work well for a while. "When you start to take vacation and sick days to work on your business, then you're probably busy enough to make the transition," Williams says. When you do, make sure you don't cheat yourself on benefits. If you aren't covered by a spouse's health insurance, you'll need to foot the bill for your own plan (a percentage of the cost is tax-deductible). And if you've been contributing to a 401(k) -- or even if you haven't -- talk to an accountant about setting up a personal retirement account, such as a SEP-IRA. Not only is this a savings vehicle, but it's like buying yourself a deduction at tax time.

Do You Have a Child-Care Plan? There may be some extraordinary women out there who manage to run their business at home without child care. Whether you're one of them depends entirely on your business goals and your start-up plan. Moms with very flexible business hours and limited contact with customers may be able to work around naptime and playdates. And your kids may actually cooperate occasionally while you work.

Parlapiano, who began working at home when her first child was born, remembers setting up a small desk and an old cordless phone in her office. The children would sometimes "work" while she did. That type of arrangement may be fine when you're involved in a task that requires minimal concentration, but it can be problematic when you're up against a tight deadline or trying to have an extended phone conversation with a client.

When you start your business, you may be tempted to wing it with child care, relying on friends, relatives, and the VCR for emergency help. But the start-up phase of any business is hectic and unpredictable, and this is when a more formal care-giving arrangement may become a necessity -- even if it's just for a short time every day. This is particularly important if you'll be dealing directly with customers.

"Every client wants to know that they're special and getting your undivided attention," says Paul Edwards, coauthor of Working From Home (Tarcher/Putnam, 1999). "We live in a very competitive environment that's focused on customer service." So while your customers may tolerate the occasional tiny voice in the background, it's unreasonable to expect anyone to deal with constant interruptions.

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How Will You Cope With Isolation? Most entrepreneurs say that launching a business is a lonely endeavor. Starting one out of your home can be lonelier still. The upside: You won't be distracted by coworkers or water-cooler gossip. The downside: You won't be distracted by coworkers or water-cooler gossip. Whether you're reclusive or wildly social, all of us benefit from human contact -- adult human contact, that is -- and work-at-home moms must go the extra mile to maintain their lifeline to the working world.

That may mean joining a professional organization or simply meeting peers or former colleagues for lunch on a regular basis. You'll need to work hard to maintain the kinds of relationships you took for granted at the office. Why? Because everyone you know, both personally and professionally, is either a customer or a lead to a customer, so you can't afford to isolate yourself. "Home-based doesn't mean housebound," Parlapiano cautions. "You have to make an effort to get out to meet other people and to make yourself -- and your business -- known."

Fortunately, over the past 10 years, there's been a vast increase in the number of networking options available to home-based entrepreneurs. Priscilla Huff, for instance, uses a community room at a local bank to host an annual meeting of local businesswomen. The event gives work-at-home moms the chance to meet, exchange business cards, and create relationships and alliances that can help them build their business. It's easy enough, Huff says, to organize a similar event in your own community. She also recommends tapping into one of the Women's Business Development Centers, which are partly funded by the Small Business Administration, for advice and access to networking opportunities.

Virtual communities can be enormously helpful as well. Check out Web sites such as www.bizymoms.com, www.mompreneursonline.com, and www.en-parent.com. These sites offer chat rooms and message boards that allow you to communicate with others who are involved in similar endeavors.

You can also look on the Web for articles on starting and running your business. To obtain a list of resources for home-based business owners, contact the American Association of Home-Based Businesses, at www.aahbb.org.

Are You Able to Create Boundaries? One of the most attractive elements of a home-based business can also be the most challenging: the lack of clear physical and psychological boundaries between your work life and your home life. If you don't clarify those boundaries, you're likely to sell yourself short in both camps. "You have to think of yourself as a businesswoman, even though you may be sitting in your kitchen in your sweatpants and sneakers," Parlapiano says. "Be protective of your work time, and be able to tell people no."

That goes for neighbors who insist on dropping by to chat during working hours as well as volunteer recruiters who assume that just because you're home, you're available. Sure, working at home gives you the flexibility to, say, help out at school regularly, but unless you pick and choose your activities, you may find yourself volunteering full-time. You're better off making a specific commitment and then fitting it into your schedule on a regular basis.

Of course, the biggest space invaders live inside your home. Your children, provided they're old enough to understand, need to learn to respect your work time. Parlapiano recalls putting a sign on her door with "Mommy is working now so don't come in" on one side and "Okay to come in" on the other. She also allowed her children to bring the mail to her office, and she made it a point to take a midday break to have lunch with them. Keep in mind, particularly if you have in-home child care, that it may be easier on your child and your caregiver if you keep your days relatively predictable. It's important for your spouse to recognize your boundaries as well. If you're serious about starting a business at home, your days can't be dedicated to laundry and running household errands. With your spouse's help, work out a plan for dividing household chores and spending quality time together.

If carving out time to work is difficult, then knowing when to stop can be harder still. If you find yourself working on weekends, checking e-mail in the wee hours, and hauling your laptop to soccer games, force yourself to stop: You're on the path to burnout. You'll also lose credibility with your family. Who, after all, will believe that your home-business plan was conceived with your family in mind if you spend all of your time working? Remember to keep the focus on your ultimate goals: You want a business of your own, but you also want a family life.

Eager to launch your home-based business? We've got 5 steps to get you started.

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Copyright © 2002 Donna Fenn. Reprinted with permission from the March 2002 issue of Parents magazine.