House Rules

Setting Up Shop

Where in your house should your office be? For Meyers, the decision was easy. "I have the corner office with windows, of course," she says, poking fun at that traditional trapping of corporate success. Her office is in a spare bedroom with windows in two walls.

When choosing a location, examine your needs and available space, then try to blend the two. If clients visit your office, it's best to have an office with a separate entrance so customers don't have to traipse through your home. Ideally, your home office should be a separate room with a door you can shut to concentrate in privacy. If this isn't possible, be creative. Many furniture makers sell armoire-like home-office units that unfold during the day and close up at night so your work is out of sight. The goal is to arrange a work area that's functional and doesn't overtake your personal space.

When Jenny Taliadoros started Main Street Stamps in Kingfield, Maine, she was living in a small house and set up her office in the dining room. But as her business--which designs and manufactures art stamps--grew, so did the space it took. "It was taking over the whole house," Taliadoros recalls. "I was always working, so it was always there." Eventually, she moved into a bigger house, where she could use a basement as an office. It's comfortably decorated, completely equipped and situated in a way that allows her to close the door and leave her business behind.

When furnishing and equipping your office, figure out what you must have (and can afford) and what you can do without for now. When Turner and Campbell set up their business, their initial focus was on buying the tools and equipment they needed to provide mobile and on-site small-engine repair service. To keep costs down, they bought the bare minimum of furnishings: two desks, a file cabinet and a microfiche machine, which they needed to read parts lists. They expect to computerize their record-keeping later this year.

Here's the basic equipment you'll want to consider:

  • Computer and printer. Even if your actual work doesn't require a computer, you need one for correspondence, record-keeping and e-mail capabilities. Include a backup system, and use it to avoid losing critical data. An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is essential, too, to protect your work-in-progress from unexpected power outages. Laser printers provide the most professional-looking output; they cost more, but your business image is worth the investment.
  • Separate phone line. Have a separate phone line dedicated to the business. Always answer it with the company name; make sure it's off-limits to children and other household members not involved with the business.
  • Answering machine/voice mail system. Your business should have its own answering system for times when you can't take calls. Whether you use a machine or voice mail (most phone companies offer this service for a nominal monthly charge) is a matter of preference. Make your announcement professional, concise and complete; this is not the place to be cute or clever.
  • Telecommunications features. Analyze your communication needs and the appropriate equipment and services to meet them. Ask your local phone company what services it offers. Add-ons such as call waiting, three-way calling and caller ID can enhance your productivity.
  • Fax machine. Sending and receiving faxes through your computer is slow and interrupts your work. Invest in a stand-alone machine with its own phone line so you can send and receive faxes 24 hours a day, whether your computer is on or not.
  • Postage meter. Although it's not essential for all businesses, metered mail gives your company a "big business" look. If you mail more than 10 or 15 pieces per day, and especially if sizes and weights vary, a meter with an electronic scale can save you time and money.
  • Copier. Consider what your copy volume is likely to be, and do a cost/benefit analysis. For very small quantities, your fax machine may be adequate, but an actual photocopy machine will give you better quality at a much lower cost per copy.
  • Furniture. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it must be adequate. Be sure your desk and chair are comfortable and ergonomically sound. You also need sufficient and convenient storage space for files and records.
  • Cellular phone. Unless you rarely leave the office, a cellular phone is an important communication tool. Cellular service is becoming more affordable by the day, so shop around for the best deal.
  • Pager. If your customers need to reach you in a hurry, a pager is usually the best tool. Don't want to give out your cell-phone number and incur the cost of unwanted calls? Give out your pager number instead; that way, you can decide which calls to return and when.

For many homebased business owners, the car is an extension of the office. Be sure it's appropriately stocked with supplies. Meyers, for example, keeps a notebook in her car with an information and time sheet for each client so she can respond to their needs when she's out of the office.

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