From the November 1996 issue of Startups

Where you locate your workplace and how you set it up help determine your chances for entrepreneurial success. If you're a sole proprietor who will work at home, or someone who will provide services primarily at your clients' premises, a basement or spare bedroom may suffice. If not, you'll likely need to scout out the ideal location for operating your venture, and arrange to lease and renovate it, before setting up shop.

For many small-business owners, the advantages of working at home are plenty. Homebased offices provide significant tax benefits, don't require commuting, and generally involve lower start-up costs, fixed costs and rent expenses. Homebased entrepreneurs can wear comfortable clothes to work and enjoy greater scheduling flexibility.

However, home offices can also have their drawbacks. Working at home can create tension between you and family members who may feel ignored. Entrepreneurs who merge workplace and home may eventually find themselves sleeping late every morning or, conversely, working late into the evening because the work is always there. The secret to success lies in setting up a distinct place for business activities that separates your personal and professional lives, then establishing a regular work schedule to help family, friends and clients know when they can and cannot interrupt you.

Depending on the type of product or service you will provide, leasing professional office space may be the desired, or required, alternative. When selecting your site, evaluate the traffic volume and the complementarity of surrounding ventures. Being conveniently located for your customers is key. Also, select a space capable of serving both your present and projected needs. Shop around for a lease offering competitive rates, convenient terms, and protection against unreasonable rent increases.

Selecting the most appropriate workplace for your new business involves staking claim to office space that meets your needs, is flexible and efficient enough to maximize your productivity, and will accommodate future growth. Having already done so themselves, our Starting Smart entrepreneurs discuss the attributes which make their own workplaces so ideal.

Judy Proudfoot, Proudfoot Wearable Art

Making a home office work can be a challenge for even the most resourceful entrepreneur. That challenge is intensified when more than one entrepreneur works at home. Judy Proudfoot, 45, went into business for herself in 1995, designing and selling handpainted clothing items that she produces in her house. Her husband, Mark, launched a homebased advertising business at nearly the same time, meaning that both husband and wife now work daily in adjacent work areas in the basement of their home in Alexandria, Minnesota.

"Mark produces advertising brochures for a handful of resorts in our area, does promotion for four different banks, and puts together an 80-page magazine for the Chamber of Commerce of Alexandria, among other things," Judy explains. "I produce my handpainted T-shirts and sweatshirts. As for our basement offices, he ended up with our furnished guest bedroom, which is fully carpeted and resembles a quaint `executive office.' I ended up with his old workroom area, right next to it, which is unfinished and has a cement floor. It only makes sense, though, because I'm the one doing all the paint work."

Judy says her workplace is far from elegant, but is ideal for her needs. "We were able to find a used work table that's about the length of three card tables pushed together, and it's got shelving underneath where I can keep all my paints and supplies," she states. "My important paperwork and designs are filed away in four big cardboard boxes. I pounded a bunch of nails all over the walls so I can hang my designs while I work on them, which gives them a place to dry. Our laundry-room area is only steps away, providing easy access to our clothes drier so I can heat-treat my creations when they're done. I've even got a window that faces south, so I've got a lot of natural light that comes in, which is helpful when I'm painting."

One reason why the Proudfoots have been able to make their dual-entrepreneur situation work so well is that they understand the value of separating the professional areas of their home from the personal areas. Another is that they stick to a consistent work schedule.

"We thought it would be best to keep all business-related items down in the basement, so it would be easier to remove ourselves from our work. Upstairs, ours is just like any other normal household," Judy explains. "One thing we agreed on when we decided to start our businesses, however, was that we would stick to a regular work schedule. We're usually both down in the basement by 8 a.m., we take coffee breaks and stop for lunch just like anybody else, and by about 4:30 in the afternoon, we're done. During busy periods, we'll sometimes go back down to the basement after dinner to work awhile longer. But we have a rule in our household that no matter what's happening, we have to be done by 9 p.m., which gives us another hour or so of time together to do whatever we choose.

"We're very disciplined. We have to be," Judy says. "Because once we start to let things slide a bit, that's when the stress level goes up in our house."

Vic & Suzette Brounsuzian, Meg-A-Nut Inc.

"Location was very important to me. I didn't want to go into a location where our business would die," says Vic Brounsuzian, 44, about the small shop where he and his wife, Suzette, have been selling nuts and fine chocolates since 1995. Since then, the store's walnuts, pecans, pistachios and filberts have become the hit of their Streamwood, Illinois, shopping plaza.

"Because this was a new business and we weren't sure that people were going to embrace our product instantly, we figured the best place to set up our shop was near a movie theater, in a growing shopping plaza," Vic explains. "Since we're so close to the theater, we expected that people on the way to see a movie would stop in, pick up a little snack, stick it in their pockets, then munch on it when they got there. It's working out that way."

Before finalizing his decision, Vic examined community demographic information obtained from a local Small Business Development Center (SBDC), and considered how well his shop would fit in with the other shops in the area: "I learned all about the kinds of people who live in the area--their salary ranges, purchasing habits and all that--and I made sure to choose a location where other businesses were also coming in to provide a solid merchant mix."

As for the size of their shop, Vic admits that while it is far from huge, it's large enough to serve the couple's needs for the next few years.

Marian Fletcher, Lets Go Party

"My workplace actually consists of an office in my apartment, an office in my daughter's home, and rented space in a commercial kitchen. I also work at my clients' party sites and in rented meeting halls," explains Marian Fletcher, 55, who's been offering complete party-planning and catering services to Baltimore residents since 1995.

"Before launching my business, I converted a small room in my apartment into an office, bringing in a business telephone, typewriter, word processor and other items," Fletcher says, "but I also set up a second office at my daughter's home, three blocks away, so I could meet with potential clients in a more impressive setting. Although most of my business meetings take place at my clients' homes or offices, some clients occasionally choose to come to me, so I want to make the right impression."

Because local Health Department guidelines require Baltimore caterers to prepare their food items in licensed kitchens inspected and approved by health officials, Fletcher needed to rent space in a commercial cooking facility as well. "The commercial kitchen I rent used to be part of a catering business, so it contains all the equipment that I need," she says. "It's just a 10-minute drive from my apartment, and I was able to find two other caterers to share the facility with me to reduce my rental expenses."

Although the logistics of working in a multi-location workplace seems to come easily for Fletcher, she is nevertheless investigating ways to expand her company's image and resources, hoping to centralize her operations under just one roof. "In the near future, I hope to relocate my business into a commercial dwelling, with my own storefront, where potential clients can come to me. It will have its own kitchen, and a display area where I can showcase all of the chafing dishes, tablecloths and other items that I use in my work.

"People who deal with you like to see a building with your company's name on it," Fletcher says. "It makes them feel even more comfortable when dealing with you."

Setting Up Shop

Setting up a work area for maximum productivity is key to making your workplace work for you. In addition to selecting a workplace that clearly separates your personal and business lives, you need to come up with a floor plan that enhances both physical and psychological productivity.

Before plunking down your desk and office equipment for good, think carefully about the kinds of tasks you will regularly complete. Will you spend much of your day working on the computer or talking on the phone? If so, make those essential devices part of your "command central." Will you commonly be making photocopies that must be trimmed to a different size? Then place the paper cutter next to the copier. The goal is to create convenient centers of activity that save time and make common business activities more enjoyable.

In addition to the operational logistics of your workplace, be sure to give careful consideration to your lighting, temperature, ventilation, and other physical and psychological needs. Entrepreneurs devote tremendous amounts of time to working, so their surroundings should be inviting. Keep in mind that lighting and overall comfort levels can influence both mood and productivity, and design your workplace accordingly. Also, be sure that your work area will be quiet enough on a regular basis so you can concentrate on your work.

A business writer for the past seven years, Kylo-Patrick Hart has run a successful homebased consulting business since 1989.