From the January 1998 issue of Startups

For homebased business owners who have been distracted, embarrassed and annoyed by the kids arguing, the cat meowing, the washing machine and dryer buzzers going off, or a toddler throwing a tantrum, take heart. You're not alone.

The surprising thing, however, is that while most at-home entrepreneurs would like to minimize distractions, they are not upset by the daily intrusion of home life into business. In fact, that's one of the attractions of the arrangement.

"I didn't want to do the day-care routine. I wanted my children around," says Jan Melnik, owner of Absolute Advantage, a 14-year-old business consulting and support firm that has worked its way from the basement through a spare bedroom to a cathedral-ceilinged add-on to the Melnik home in Durham, Connecticut. Melnick has patched together a network of helpers who make sure her three young boys are well taken care of when she's busy at work. But that doesn't necessarily mean the children are out of sight.

Her office is as child-beckoning as it is childproof. The children's books, preferred play toys, neon papers, colorful markers and scrap paper fill the lower shelves of her bookcase. Last-generation computers, set to the side of her "real working space," are child-welcoming.

"Often, even when [the children] were of playpen age, they were in the office with me playing with their books or toys," says Melnick, whose company brings in annual sales of $35,000 to $40,000. "And since many of the businesses I serve are also homebased businesses, when clients came to my office, they would come with children. I found that being upfront about the fact that I had children around actually helped my business."


Patricia Schiff Estess is author of Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage and Kids, Money & Values (both published by Betterway) and president of Working Families Inc., a Manhattan firm specializing in family memoirs.

Setting Limits

Most homebased entrepreneurs wouldn't--or couldn't--go as far as Melnick in actively integrating the family into the business. While they might rail at having offices that double as playrooms, they understand that a plumber's visit might interfere with their work schedule and that toys sometimes spill over into their offices just as their papers sometimes spill over onto dining room tables.

What creative compromises can homebased entrepreneurs make to keep the fuzzy line between business and home from becoming a blur?

*Take advantage of the 24-hour day. Coming in at eight in the morning and leaving at five in the afternoon may be the standard for corporate America, but it's never been the golden rule for entrepreneurs. In fact, for homebased entrepreneurs, it's unheard of. When, on occasion, home life eats into the day's work, many people start calling clients in different time zones at unheard of business hours: 10 p.m. or 3 a.m. Others, like Allen Shulman, president of Northstar Homes Inc., a custom homebuilder in Northbrook, Illinois, return to their offices after the family has settled in for the evening, put on some favorite music and handle the paperwork.

*Make it a family affair. Kids who are routinely involved in a parent's homebased business have an appreciation of what being an entrepreneur is all about. At first, maybe they can only open mail, make copies or lick stamps. But as they get older, their involvement can increase. "Kids are eager to learn," says Liane Lemons, who started her Boise, Idaho, CPA practice in her home when her children were young. Now, her children file, make bank deposits and even act as her secretary when needed.

*Hire a helper. Think of creating a new position within your firm and your family--a life helper. CeCe Peabody, president of Peabody Advertising Co. Inc. in Wayne, New Jersey, has found such a gem in Dorothy LaPenna. LaPenna started at Peabody Advertising as an outside salesperson, but she became so valuable to the home and business that she got promoted to life helper. What does she do? "Everything," says Peabody, "from running the office to getting groceries. She even helped me clean my house before a big party once. The best thing is that she keeps me organized and anticipates what needs to be done."

*Don't go out for milk. Distractions, from an overflowing laundry hamper to exercise equipment beckoning to be used, can draw you away from the focus of your business. "The first year I worked from home," says John McDonnell, "I used to hop into the car to get [groceries] whenever we ran out." It could have meant two or three trips a day to the grocery store for the writer/editor, whose freelance business is run out of the Maple Glen, Pennsylvania, home he shares with his wife and four children. He soon realized if he wanted to get any work done, he couldn't do that. That's why he and other homebased business owners have found that setting aside specific time for home duties and personal pleasures works well.

*Live by the rules . . . whenever possible. Linda Johnson, president of Morning Star Organizational Development, a human resource and diversity development firm in Queens, New York, tries to block out her work time, her family time and the time when she'll combine them, like phoning a client while she's preparing dinner. Others put "Do not disturb" signs on the office door. Still others establish "office hours." Naturally, in cases of emergency, these self-imposed rules don't work. But they're useful in establishing patterns and habits.

*Take advantage of technology. Mute buttons were made for those moments when you're on the phone and all hell breaks loose between your kids in the kitchen. Home observation systems, with their video components, allow you to glance in on children and babysitters without interruptions. And, of course, having two phone lines, with the business one off limits to the family, is a must.

No doubt about it. The line between home and business is fuzzy for most homebased entrepreneurs. But that may be just what many want--the loose integration of the two worlds, not a rigid separation.

Bridging The Gap

The "nanny gap" is John McDonnell's greatest nightmare. He lived through it once and doesn't want to again. As a work-from-home parent (his wife is an account executive with a pharmaceutical firm and frequently travels for business), he had to design a patchwork arrangement when the family's nanny went on a scheduled maternity leave and they couldn't find an appropriate replacement right away. "We thought a month would be sufficient time to make arrangements," he says. "It took three months."

The two-month breach cut deeply into McDonnell's work as a freelance writer and editor. First he'd drop off the two older children at school, then he'd leave his 3-year-old at his sister-in-law's for the morning. Then he'd have to pick up his youngest before the others came home. "For much of that time, my work day shrunk from 10 hours to four hours, so I had to work at night and on weekends," McDonnell recalls.

Trying to run a business that requires a lot of phone contact and blocks of concentrated time in an unpredictable, kid-filled environment can be stressful. At times, it's even cause for panic, McDonnell says. The imaginary beam that's supposed to balance business and family responsibility rarely does. Still, McDonnell, who until 1991 was an office-based writer and editor, thinks having his office in the basement of his Maple Glen, Pennsylvania, home is wonderful.

"I had wanted to do this since the day I got sick at work and came home to find the babysitter shouting at my 2-year-old daughter for something ridiculous, like spilling milk," he says. "Now, though I am not actually the child-care provider--except in emergencies--I can hear how the nanny and the children are interacting, and I can pop upstairs to see how things are going. My mind is at ease."

Contact Sources

Absolute Advantage, P.O. Box 718, Durham, CT 06422, (860) 349-0256

John McDonnell, (215) 830-0591, jaymack@ix.netcom.com

Liane M. Lemons, CPA, (208) 368-0525, fax: (208) 343-2063

Morning Star Organizational Development, 130-13 146th St., South Ozone Park, NY 11436-2308, (718) 529-0380

Northstar Homes Inc., (847) 714-0054, nstarhomes@aol.com

Peabody Advertising Co. Inc., (973) 812-6536, fax: (973) 812-6529