From the January 1998 issue of Startups

We are fascinated by you. As a magazine, as a nation, as a people, we can't help but marvel at those of you who manage to work from your homes, who have your minds set on blending real work with real life. Before you came along, everything was neat and tidy. Home was the place for the sofa, television and refrigerator, and the office the place for the computer, printer and copier. But you changed all that. And you intend to change the way we view work in the future. So what we want to know is, Who exactly are you?

You are a mass market of one.

You are Omar Wasow, 26, operating New York Online from your Brooklyn, New York, brownstone apartment. You've managed to build your Web site design firm to seven employees and hope sales will cross the $1 million mark this year. You were a self-described "nerd" as a kid, entranced by the computer since you first played Pong. Your initial programming experience was on a $100 computer called the Vic 20 that your parents bought you; today, your clients include Consumer Reports, the New Yorker, Vibe Magazine, the government of Martinique, and various nonprofit organizations.

And you are Jeff Berner, 56, president of Jeff Berner Creative, a writer, speaker, marketing consultant and, incidentally, coiner of the phrase "mass market of one." You forsook the route of the salaried employee and chose the life of a homebased business owner when you graduated from high school in the late '50s. People used to roll their eyes as you proclaimed that you worked from home; today, representatives from Apple, US West, Office Depot, Okidata Group and MCI Telecommunications are scrambling for your expertise. You've worked as branding facilitator for Java, Sun Microsystems' Internet software. And, as you ponder the irony of being considered a pioneer of one of America's hottest markets, you enjoy a view of the Pacific Ocean from your Marin County, California, home office.

Daring To Be Different

The beauty of homebased business certainly lies in its diversity. The disadvantage of homebased business may also lie in its diversity, as no one, including homebased business owners themselves, can pin down exactly who makes up this market. According to research and consulting firm Find/SVP, there are approximately 18.3 million self-employed people who work at home. However, only about 8.7 million Americans who do any type of work at home said they operated a homebased business.

"Many people don't actually identify with the label," says Tom Miller, vice president of Find/SVP's Emerging Technologies Research Group, of the discrepancy. "For instance, consultants often just say, `Oh, I'm a consultant' or `I provide a service,' but they don't necessarily equate it with operating a home business."

Perhaps the label of homebased business owner is too restrictive. Or just too blah. You're more like the independent filmmakers in a world of Hollywood moguls and their formulaic movies, the interesting new kids in school that make the popular clique seem insipid by comparison.

You're definitely unlike the perception most people have of you. In contrast to a few years ago, homebased business owners today are typically wealthier, more educated, and more likely to be considered "knowledge workers" than the U.S. adult population at large. According to Find/SVP, 70 percent of you are men and 30 percent women. You're overwhelmingly of the boomer variety, more than three-quarters of you are married and more than half of you have children at home.

"Home office types are cultural creatives, which means they're taking advantage of technology to preserve the values of their family lives and work in a way they like," says Miller. "Operating a home business is about succeeding on your own terms."

But not everyone does it for all the nice, family-value reasons. Leaving a corporate environment also provides plenty of incentives. "Who wants to start the morning with white knuckles and go home with white knuckles, all the while feeling powerless?" says Berner. "It's brutal. The beauty of [being homebased] is that I can go into a corporation, do my work, get my pay and leave. I'm not subject to the backbiting, the gossip, the hideous politics that go on."

No wonder no one can quite get a handle on you. In a world drunk with power, you're in a territory all your own. You're part Wall Street, part Ingalls family. And we can't help but be, well, covetous. "Five years ago, the same people who thought, ` This guy's living on a trust fund, is not very serious about his profession, or is so unsuccessful he can't afford an office,' are the ones now saying, ` You work from home? You lucky son of a gun. How can I do that?' " says Berner. "People making humongous sums of money are envying my lifestyle."

They'd trade places with Berner in a second; he, on the other hand, would never trade places with them. "I can take a break at three in the afternoon and take a walk on the beach without getting a hall pass," says Berner. "And that makes me feel like a grown-up."

The Tech Advantage

Technology has become instrumental to your revolution--it is both the key that's loosed the chains of corporate bondage and the one common denominator between you and Them. Just as technology has dictated the direction of homebased business, homebased business owners are dictating the direction of technology. Fifteen percent of all U.S. adults on the Internet say they own a home business; you're five times as likely to find a home business operator on the Internet as one who is not.

"In the high-tech [arena], there's more freedom to be different," says Wasow. "There are going to be lots of businesses based on somebody making smart decisions about some niche industry. And all you'll need is a good mind and a home computer."

Wasow, Berner, and their respective minds and computers have quite a future ahead of them. Meanwhile, Berner continues to field calls from major corporations and even invites a select few corporate executives over to the impressive house he built to incorporate his home office.

As New York Online continues to grow, Wasow is considering moving to another apartment so his business can stay where it is. "We have a funky office atmosphere, and that appeals to employees and clients who don't want a middle-of-the-road product," says Wasow. "In programming, we have a saying: If there's a bug you can't get rid of, call it a feature. In some ways, that's precisely what we've done. Rather than think of running a business out of an apartment as a limitation, it's something we take pride in and celebrate."

And, by the way--you may be asking--who are we? What we hope to be is not only the authority on what's happening in homebased business but also your guide to what will happen next. We want to address your concerns, satisfy your needs, exchange ideas, fight your causes. We want to help you celebrate. And through it all, we'd like to get to know you better. This could, after all, be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Contact Sources

New York Online, (718) 596-6000, http://www.nyo.com

Jeff Berner Creative, (707) 878-2246, http://www.jeffberner.com

Find/SVP Emerging Technologies Research Group, http://etrg.findsvp.com