From the April 1998 issue of Startups

Regulation. Frustration. Those words have become synonymous in the minds of many homebased business owners attempting to right years of zoning regulation wrongs. Michelle Bloom, owner of Minneapolis-based Creative Business Consulting, recalls the moment last May when she heard that the Minneapolis City Council had reversed a zoning ordinance she'd spent three years rewriting and revising with city planners. "I was angry, tremendously frustrated, even sad," says Bloom. "In the business world, something like that just wouldn't have happened. I went home that day and said, ` That's it. I'm done.' "

However, by July, Bloom had recovered from her disillusionment and resumed her mission as director of the Minneapolis Homebased Business Association's Zoning Task Force. "I felt very strongly that this was an important fight for so many reasons," she says. "The council realized after the fact that they voted the way they did because they were uneducated. We asked for meetings with all of them. We came in with the facts, the numbers, the economic impact."

By November, the council had reversed its May vote. "For the most part, we got what we asked for," says Bloom. "The ordinance ended up being a fair and balanced way to regulate while still allowing homebased business owners to flourish."

The effort to strike this balance has led to a jumble of emotions nationwide, as homebased business owners clash with the world of local politics. "It can get nasty, because local governments aren't prepared to officiate over [neighborhood] squabbles," says Stephen Lang, founder of the Mount Evans Home Based Business Association in Evergreen, Colorado. "Most government [officials] are sitting on their hands waiting for something to hit the fan."

Minneapolis is one of a growing number of cities that has chosen to deal with the issue. After a four-year-long process and three revised ordinances, the current Minneapolis statute allows one nonresident to be employed by a homebased business, sets hours the business can be open to the public, and restricts the number of clients visiting the home if the traffic proves detrimental to the character of the neighborhood.

Minneapolis' ordinance is far from extreme when compared to the laws other cities have passed. In the worst cases, operating a business from your home is flat out illegal. In other cities, ordinances regulate the types of businesses you can run. "That's a trap you can't win with, because there's no way to list every business in the world that's acceptable," says Lang, who also has a problem with cities that regulate the amount of residential space that can be used for business activities.

Likewise, homebased business owners should realize that regulation isn't necessarily a machine they must rage against. "We want the regulations," says Lang. "Otherwise, you have some homebased business owners who will take advantage [of the lack of regulations], and then the whole community rises up against us."

"The reality is we get regulated, and we need to deal with it," says Bloom. "And, if the system works at all, the city regulates out of concern for the people. Homebased business owners must continue to have the economic impact we have as a population. Let's go forth with that."

Friend Or Foe?

Duston Jensen has had to close down homebased businesses. He seeks them out, regulates them, even taxes them (retroactively, no less). Yet Jensen, the manager of the tax and license division of Tacoma, Washington, claims to be acting as a friend to homebased businesses. "If all I did was enforce the law against those people who knew what the law was and who voluntarily complied, tax rates would go up for everyone," says Jensen. "I just want to be fair and equitable. I'm going to shoot from the hip and treat you the same, whether you're a multimillion-dollar corporation downtown or a $1,000-a-month homebased business."

In 1994, Tacoma decided to enforce its existing homebased business regulations, which allow clients to visit homebased businesses by appointment only, outlaw retail sales operations in residential neighborhoods, and restrict the storage or display of goods in yards. Any homebased business found in violation can be slapped with a citation of up to $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail, or even shut down. "Action will be taken," promises Jensen, who built a nationwide reputation among municipal tax officials for his aggressiveness.

The rub is that Tacoma residents are now required to buy an additional license simply to run a business out of their homes. Most homebased business owners pay an annual fee of $122 (which includes a $50 increase for being homebased). Although the fee may not be exorbitant, it has entrepreneurs up in arms. Some resent being singled out and taxed just for being homebased; others believe the city merely sees them as a juicy new source of revenue, considering the 4,600 homebased businesses registered in Tacoma generate more than $400,000 in annual revenue for the city. "I will agree and admit that the costs have increased," says Jensen. "But that is primarily to cover the costs of compliance efforts. It's an issue of spending time and effort, and providing staff to go out and enforce these rules and regulations. I think it's unfair to put that burden on storefronts."

When Jensen uncovers a homebased business that is not registered with the city, he taxes them, charging them back taxes for up to 10 years if they were unaware of the business tax and back to 1951 if they knowingly avoided paying the taxes.

Can Jensen feel homebased business owners' pain? "I understand these taxes may be burdensome when they're first discovered," he says. "Granted, it might be a surprise that all of a sudden the owners are faced with years of taxes, but it's something they should have looked into."

One For All

Rather than cowering, homebased business owners are the very ones who should be proactively pursuing zoning regulations. Self-destruction? More like self-preservation, says Stephen Lang, founder of the Mount Evans Home Based Business Association in Evergreen, Colorado. "Homebased business owners must step up and suggest to local governments that they need to look at their ordinances," he explains. "Otherwise, when problems happen, emotions get involved and then it's very difficult to get things done."

Prepare for the world of red tape . . . and make the most of city politicians' accessibility. "Take your commissioner to lunch," Lang suggests. "Tell him [or her], `There's a growing wave of this problem across the United States, and it's coming here soon. You've probably heard something about this--wouldn't you like to be prepared?' "

Your pièce de résistance at this lunch? A ready-to-use ordinance that outlines general home occupation standards and addresses issues such as appearance, parking, storage and square footage. Lang offers a copy of this standard ordinance free of charge at www.heartbeat-of-evergreen.com/mehbba So far, at least one city has implemented Lang's ordinance verbatim; others have taken chunks of it and molded it to the unique characteristics of their cities. Either way, Lang may be able to help in your endeavors--contact him at

Pet Peeves

By Charlotte Mulhern

You're surrounded by hair balls, wet noses and wagging tails. The sounds of rhythmic scratching and jingling collar tags reverberate in the background. Meows and barks are commonplace. Where are you?

Nope, it's not the vet's crowded lobby; more likely, it's the thriving home base of a business near you. That's because a host of homebased entrepreneurs with pets--too many to count, really--don't mind if Fluffy or Fido (or both) stretch lazily across keyboards and monitors, or sleep peacefully on important documents during the workday. In fact, many wouldn't have it any other way.

"It kind of adds a different dimension to your business," says Rochelle Balch, founder of Glendale, Arizona, computer consulting firm RB Balch & Associates Inc. And she should know--her 20-pound orange tabby, Stripey, once accidentally saved and printed an entire file of payroll documents with just a swish of her tail against a trackball.

Yes, furry friends do have their downsides: Hair floats about the office, jamming equipment and scratching CDs; dogs bark and get into the trash when you're on the phone. And then there's the time Balch's cats decided to gnaw on a stack of envelopes before a mailing: "There were probably about 100 envelopes that went out with little cat teeth marks on them," she remembers.

It's not like her clients have any complaints--but one recently called her company's help desk in a panic: What to do when the cat throws up on your keyboard? Well-versed and well-prepared, this computer consultant was able to answer with confidence: Go buy a new one, of course!

The Geek's Guide

By Debra Phillips

Can you run a business today and not have an Internet site? Well, maybe. But if you dare bypass the electronic world altogether, you're certainly giving your competition an unnecessary advantage--one that might prove fatal. The good news: You don't have to be a Bill Gates clone to plug into the Internet and its many opportunities.

Enter The Geek's Guide to Internet Business Success: The Definitive Business Blueprint for Internet Developers, Programmers, Consultants, Marketers, and Service Providers (Van Nostrand Reinhold, $22.95 paper). Written by Bob Schmidt, The Geek's Guide simplifies the process of going online. Assures Schmidt, "Today, the Internet is no longer the province of rocket scientists."

Whether you wish to launch an Internet-related business or merely incorporate the Internet into your own company, The Geek's Guide offers a good grounding in the basics. "There is every reason to believe that Web development will grow to become a permanent force in business and marketing communications," Schmidt argues, "every bit as important as graphic design, advertising agencies and public relations firms."

Don't be left out in the cold--electronically speaking, that is. The Geek's Guide will show you how not to get your lines crossed.

Tech Schmeck

By Jeff Berner

In 1894, Mark Twain plunked down $125 for a Remington Model I typewriter. The first American author to buy one, Twain later wrote, "The machine has several virtues . . . One may lean back in his chair and work it. It piles an awful stack of words on one page. It don't muss things or scatter ink blots around."

We've come a long way in 100 years. In fact, the personal computer you buy today to manage your homebased business is more powerful than the computers that landed astronauts on the moon in 1969. But as our technology becomes more powerful, so does our fear and frustration.

A recent issue of the Mayo Clinic's HealthQuest newsletter reports that nearly 60 percent of all respondents are "technophobic." The research found that when an electronic device fails, two-thirds of the people studied blame themselves. Technophobia is the dirty little secret leaking out of the high-tech revolution, and homebased workers who have no technical support staff must come to grips with this debilitating "disease."

But there's a price to pay for the convenience afforded by high technology. Many devices, from cell phones to computer modems, become a source of constant interruption and repair. And--let's be honest--few software releases are truly ready for use by ordinary mortals.

"Even if you have a feel for these tools, you usually have to learn a given software application when you're under immediate pressure to produce," says Dean Ritz, a Seattle-based business and licensing strategies consultant.

We all want to keep doing what we do best--writing, architecture, research--while gaining productivity and leisure time. You may be able to set the clock on your VCR, but can you set it to record the right program on the right channel at the right time--using those instructions written in some vaguely familiar language?

One way to address the problem may be to take things slowly. Ritz, for example, has made a practice of learning the tools he needs in a leisure-ly manner and then using them for specific tasks.

Like Ritz, we, too, must learn to come to terms with technology at our own pace. Only by sticking to our own rhythms can we make these machines work for us--not the other way around.

Bluffer's Guide To Technology

  • Backups: Copies of your text, graphic and musical files, databases, etc., that are similar to a carbon copy of work done on a typewriter, or Xerox-type copies. You should back up your files onto a floppy disk or removable cartridge on a regular basis to safeguard against system crashes, power outages, fire, theft and so on. Try to store backup disks with vital, irreplaceable files in a separate place, far from your computer, such as in your briefcase or a safe deposit box, or in a fireproof box.
  • MHz: Megahertz is the speed rating of a com-puter system. Right now, an 80 MHz machine is adequate, but if you can afford something rated at 133 or faster, get it. A computer rated at 300 MHz will blow your hat off! Speed isn't so important if you're mostly doing word processing, but graphic software and large databases require more speed.
  • CD-ROM drive: A CD player that has a pro-gram, an encyclopedia and/or music (all of these combined are considered "multimedia"), etc. It's a "ROM" storage device because it's "Read Only"--you can't "write" to it or change it. But some are fully interactive, and by cooperating with your computer, they give the feeling of being customizable.
  • Scanner: A device that lets you funnel photos, newspaper clippings and other materials into your computer. Vital for photographic manipulation and storage, scanners are also useful for storing things you need but don't want to keep in paper form. In the case of scanned text, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software will let you word-process most articles, letters and other text files you've scanned.
  • Software programs: These are like movie scripts. They are endless lines of code that tell the computer, for example, "If the user presses the Control Key and the `F' key at the same time, activate the `Find' function," allowing the user to find a key word, a file title, a name or anything else stored on the hard drive, floppy disks or removable cartridge.
  • Inkjet printer: Black-and-white and/or color, these printers use primary color cartridges, plus black. Some brands produce awesome results. Cheaper ones are very good, but the more expensive ones produce incredibly high-resolution type and graphics. They produce professional-looking documents and compete well with laser printers.
  • Laser printer: Also available in black-and-white and/or color. A very precise technology and, as with inkjet printers, the more expensive ones produce incredibly high-resolution type and graphics.
  • Modem: Connects a computer to a telephone line to access e-mail, send computer-generated faxes, surf the Internet or auto-dial phone calls.
  • E-mail: Text and other files sent or received over a modem. It's very fast and very convenient.

The World's Shortest Computer Literacy Course

Let's take a look at some of the most common computer terms and, in the process, get an idea of how a computer works. This will take about three minutes. Pain-free. Guaranteed.

First, think of what you had for breakfast this morning. Got it in mind? OK, that's your RAM at work--your Random Access Memory. You pointed to the part of your memory that contains what you want to remember and scanned the information stored there. It then "displayed" your breakfast memory in your mind's eye. Computers have little RAM chips where memories are stored only while the computer is turned on. "Random" doesn't mean by accident, like a roulette wheel. It means you can point at random to any item in memory and display it on the screen or printer.

The other kind of computer memory is the ROM chip. ROM stands for Read Only Memory, which means that only the computer reads the program; you can't fiddle with it or change it. ROM chips contain instructions a little like your autonomic nervous system, which, though you don't think about it, does the "housekeeping" chores of your body, such as breathing and growing hair. The ROM chip is the network of circuits that is always in place to make the computer work for you. You use the RAM to put in your information--say, word processing or accounting. You can write, rewrite or erase this kind of memory if you wish. You then save your work that's dancing around in RAM onto your hard drive or floppy disks. When you turn off the computer, RAM dies, but the work is saved.

Anything you add to your computer system, such as a hard drive for storing software and saving data (it's like a huge file cabinet), a modem to connect the computer with another via phone lines, a printer or a scanner, is a peripheral.

The hardware is the computer, the printer and so on. The software is the program, the commands that make a dumb machine into a "smart" word processor, an accounting machine, a telecommunications system or the "brains" behind a robot.

Floppy disks are the magnetic disks used to store information. Hard drives are the turntables that can store much more data than floppies can.

An interface cable connects two pieces of hardware, such as your computer and your printer. Interfacing software is a program that lets one computer talk to another computer or another device, such as a scanner.

See? Quick and painless, just like I promised.

Contact Sources

Creative Business Consulting, (612) 788-8877, cbci@pobox.com

Duston Jensen, (253) 591-5247, djensen@ci.tacoma.wa.us

RB Balch & Associates Inc., (602) 561-9366, rb@rbbalch.com

Home-office workshop leader and author Jeff Berner can be reached at jeffberner@jeffberner.com