Q: Everyone says you should have a separate entrance to your home office, but this is impossible for me. In fact, people have to trudge through my living room to get to my office. How do I maintain a professional image with my clients, considering my circumstances?
A: While a separate entrance is certainly ideal, it is by no means necessary. Very few people are lucky enough to have a separate entrance for their businesses, including us. Not one of our three homes has had a home office with a separate entrance.
Considering the most common location for a home office is a spare bedroom, however, you must make sure you present a professional image for clients en route to your office.
With people entering your home through the living room, you're off to a good start. In many homes, the living room is the most formal room in the house, reserved for company. Living rooms can often pass for office waiting rooms, considering office waiting rooms are usually designed to look like living rooms anyway.
Because your living room will make a lasting impression on your clients, carefully survey the area to identify anything that wouldn't be considered appropriate in an office environment. Comfortable chairs, a couch and a coffee table displaying a few newspapers, books or magazines are all completely acceptable. Even a television is fine, as many waiting rooms and executive suites have TV monitors. But playpens, children's toys, exercise equipment or laundry baskets, on the other hand, would not convey a professional image--you should definitely relocate such personal items to other places in your home.
Now think about the activities that go on in your living room during business hours. Does it serve as a dining room? A family room? Do you or others watch soap operas or cartoons there during the day? Does anyone eat lunch or snack on the couch? Do your children play with friends or watch videos there during business hours? Ideally, your living room should be off-limits for such family activities while clients are coming and going. Try to arrange for these activities to take place in other parts of the house during the business day. If that's not always possible, on days you expect clients to visit, you'll need to shoo folks out of the living room and pick up and put away toys, dirty dishes and clothing scattered about.
If this arrangement isn't possible or sounds like too much of a hassle, consider purchasing a large, attractive screen, using a bookshelf-like room divider, or installing a sliding partition that creates a passageway through the living room to your office, preventing anyone from seeing into the rest of the room.
Q: I've just hired my first employee. I'm frequently out of the office at meetings. Would you suggest I give my new employee the key to my house? The idea of giving someone access to my home is scary, but I'm not sure I have any alternatives.
A: If you have a self-contained office with a restroom and any other facilities an employee would need for the day, you could install a separate lock for your office entrance and keep the other areas of your home locked while you're away. You might want to install locks on bedroom doors or install a separate door to lock off hallways leading to strictly personal areas of your home.
Otherwise, to allay concerns about leaving valuables or private areas of your home open to a virtual stranger, you can safeguard valuables by locking china cabinets, personal files or jewelry boxes, and getting a safe for other valuables.
Given your work situation, you need to hire an employee whom you can trust with a key to your home. Having reservations about giving a key to this individual is probably not a good sign.
Q: I've been in business for three years, and about 80 percent of my work comes from a single client. I know I need to pursue other clients, but how can I possibly find the time to diversify while still keeping my current client satisfied?
A: As you are undoubtedly all too aware, as great as the steady cash flow is, getting the bulk of your income from just one client puts you at great risk should you suddenly lose that client. In your case, it sounds as if you not only get 80 percent of your income from this one client but also spend most of your time serving them. To free up some of your time to market and serve new clients, you'll need to hire additional help to complete the work you already have. Your first step is to evaluate what portion of your work could be done by an assistant, associate or outside contractor.
You should arrange to free up at least two hours each week for marketing and to begin breaking in someone to work with you so that when you generate new business, you'll have dependable help to meet the demand.
While you did not mention the nature of your business, there are self-employed individuals in a wide variety of industries who prefer not to market themselves. Highly introverted people and people bound at home by family responsibilities or physical disabilities sometimes find themselves in this situation. Such individuals can be excellent resources in a situation like yours. Be certain, however, that all funds and billing come through you and that you have clear written agreements signed by your associates to prevent them from contracting directly with your clients. Also, you need to line up individuals you can depend on to do high-quality work within established deadlines.
To find associates you can count on, get referrals from sources you trust. Then be sure to review their work and discuss with them their priorities and work ethics. Ask for references and check them thoroughly. Most important, start them off with one very small, low-risk assignment. Set a clear goal and a specific deadline. If the deadline is more than a week away, check progress intermittently and, if possible, ask that portions of the work be turned in as they are completed. This can help you identify potential problems before they become full-blown disasters.
Keep in mind that working with someone else will take some additional time, especially at first. But by building a network of associates you can rely on, you can expand your business without taking on debt or adding to your expenses until you have the business to cover them.
Paul and Sarah Edwards are homebased business experts and co-authors of several books, including Finding Your Perfect Work and Secrets of Self-Employment (Tarch/Putnam).