From the June 1998 issue of Startups

Barking dogs. Screaming kids. Those now-infamous leaf blowers. Your neighbor's blaring radio.

What do the above have in common? That's right--noise. And unfortunately, noise seems to be an inescapable part of our daily lives. Hearing loss is on the rise, and according to Newsweek, more than 20 million Americans are regularly exposed to dangerous noise levels. From street traffic to airplanes to lawn mowers, noise surrounds us day in and day out. And urban areas--home to countless homebased businesses--are most at risk. Consider this: The ambient noise level in our big cities increases one decibel every decade, says acoustical scientist David Lubman.

Noise affects more than just your ears: Think high blood pressure, a faster heart rate and sleep disturbances, all of which can hurt you and your business. "It's more of a problem than has been recognized, and it's growing," says Lubman, founder of Westminster, California, acoustical consulting firm David Lubman & Associates.

Homebased business owners regularly struggle with noise pollution, and Lubman is no exception. He considers the worst offenders to be neighborhood lawn mowers and leaf blowers. "They drive me crazy," he says.

If noise interferes with your concentration, invest in some earplugs. Remember that solid walls keep out more noise than walls with windows. If working with a view is a priority, consider installing double-paned windows, which help block noise. You can also purchase thicker "sound-rated" doors to achieve similar results. And if you're in the market for a new home, determine beforehand the sorts of noise you'll encounter throughout the day.

No matter what you do, realize that it's impossible to completely insulate yourself. While some people carry on in blissful oblivion, we are all victims of a world that's just plain noisy.

Talk Show: Leaf Me Alone

It's one of those peaceful mornings when I savor working at home. Birds chirp, the sun shines--all's right with the world. I pour a steaming mug of coffee, open the window to bask in the gentle breeze and sit down to make my first call of the day.

"Good morning, Mr. Wilson," I say in my brightest phone voice. "This is Ka--" GRRZZKK!!! GRZZBRAGGHH!!!

Agh! Like a quarterback diving for the end zone, I hurl myself across the room to shut the window, step on the cat, knock over my coffee, scald my shin, utter some choice words and lunge back to hang up the phone, praying that my client doesn't realize who just called him. The leaf blowers are at it again.

Leaf blowers? No, they aren't giant mutant insects, but noisy machines used by gardeners on whom Southern California homeowners rely to keep their lawns neat. (At press time, a ban on blowers had sparked a battle between the Los Angeles City Council and the gardeners, who claim they can't work without the machines.)

Gardeners say the ban on blowers will destroy their livelihood. What about my livelihood? It's tough landing new clients. It's even tougher when your calls sound like they're coming from a phone booth next to LAX.

It all boils down to this: Would a homebased business that spewed pollution, blew dust all over the neighborhood, and made sounds loud enough to wake the dead at 7 a.m. be in business for long? I rest my case.

In the meantime, I highly recommend Mack's Pillow Soft earplugs.

Independents' Day

By G. David Doran

If you're an independent contractor or use the services of one, take a lesson from the following: Eight workers who signed freelance contracts with Microsoft between 1987 and 1990 sued for eligibility to participate in the company's stock purchase program after an IRS audit reclassified them as Microsoft employees. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the workers, saying the so-called independent contractors did much the same work as Microsoft's regular employees. Microsoft then took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January, the Supreme Court let the lower court's decision stand, making Microsoft liable for millions of dollars in back benefits as well as IRS taxes and fines.

How can homebased business owners who hire independent contractors protect themselves from a legal nightmare like this? According to Dennis R. Bonessa, a labor law attorney with Reed, Smith, Shaw and McClay in Pittsburgh, business owners should examine the IRS' 20-question test to make sure the worker is an independent contractor. "It boils down to the ability to control how and when a job is done and whether or not the independent contractor [offers his or her services] to the public," says Bonessa.

If you're an independent contractor working from home, make sure you pass the IRS test. While independent contractors can lose their home office and business deductions if they're reclassified, the company they work for often has to pay retroactive taxes and fines, which may cause it to be gun-shy about hiring independent contractors in the future. For more on independent contractors and the IRS, see "Legal Ease," February.

Class Act

By Cynthia E. Griffin

Long before soho became a buzzword of the '90s, the Duquesne University Chrysler Corp. Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Pittsburgh was catering to the needs of homebased entrepreneurs. This June, the center is holding its 10th annual homebased business conference.

The conference is a perfect example of the above-and-beyond support of homebased business that has made Duquesne a role model in its field. Sixteen workshops covering topics such as marketing, financing, the Internet, hot businesses, recordkeeping and legal issues will be featured at the daylong meeting. Vendors, including banks, software and computer companies, credit card services, and other companies providing services to homebased business owners, will also be exhibiting.

In addition to helping homebased businesses, the SBDC conducts a biannual zoning study for Allegheny County in Pennsylvania. The results of the study help entrepreneurs learn about zoning laws in the county's municipalities and find resources to tackle zoning problems. Sometimes, entrepreneurs come in just to peruse the center's homebased business library.

Beginning in June, the center will also co-host monthly breakfast meetings. "Homebased business owners have a problem with accountability," says Laura M. Magone, manager of program development. "These breakfast meetings are designed to provide a buddy with whom homebased entrepreneurs can review goals and objectives."

Contact the SBDC at (412) 396-6233 or e-mail duqsbdc@duq.edu

Healthy Returns

By Charlotte Mulhern

As if you can fit anything else into your already cramped schedule . . .

Actually, you can--and you should, especially when it comes to exercise and healthy eating. "One of the biggest challenges for [people] who work in their homes is finding time for themselves," says Connie Diekman of the American Dietetic Association.

While too many of us dedicate all our time to the business--leaving nothing for our own well-being--the good news is that it's easy to get back on the right track. And the better news? You won't regret it once you give it a try. When you take care of your health, you feel better. And the better you feel, the more productive you'll be in your business. To get started, Diekman offers these tips:

  • Plan your schedule as if you still worked in the corporate world. When your schedule is determined by someone else, it's very clear when you're working and when you're not, says Diekman. When you're working at home, it's often hard to separate the two.

Make an extra effort to decide when you're going to work and when you're going to take breaks. In other words, plan your own schedule, and make sure it's the one that works best for you. Plan regular mealtimes--and take them. Schedule time to stretch and exercise--and do it. Write everything down in your daily planner as reminders.

  • Pretend you can't go back into the kitchen once you've gone to the office. This accomplishes two goals: saving time and controlling your temptation to snack. Start your day with a healthy breakfast, then put everything else you'll need for the day in your office: bottled water, a bagged lunch and healthy snacks such as bagels, rice cakes, popcorn, pretzels, low-fat crackers, fruit and veggies. That way, Diekman says, "When you want to eat, it won't take 10 minutes to figure out what to fix and another 10 to fix it."
  • Plan exercises that are quick, easy and don't require sophisticated equipment. Stretching is always a simple--and ideal--solution. When you're sitting at your desk, twist your ankles, do leg lifts under the desk, and do arm bends, reaches, and other movements that give you flexibility. "These might not have a lot of aerobic benefit, but they'll help you feel better and keep you from being stiff from sitting," says Diekman.

Try walking. If you take an hour for lunch, eat for half the time and walk around your neighborhood for the other half--the fresh air will improve your emotional well-being and rejuvenate your senses. If you don't have that much time, schedule quick 10-minute walks throughout the day.

  • Learn to appreciate the benefits of healthy living. Once you control your diet and exercise regularly, you'll achieve a comfortable balance between work and play and will feel more motivated, energetic and keep your weight under control. "But if you don't have a schedule," warns Diekman, "you'll find yourself working whenever, and then everything else goes out the window." Don't let that happen to you.

Your Chance To Win

Top of the world. Lonely at the top. Top dog. Straight to the top. Let's face it, our society is obsessed with being number one. Lately, we've been giving this number-one thing a lot of thought, too. This thought turned into a quest, and the quest became a contest: Office Depot and Entrepreneur's HomeOffice magazine's first-ever search for the Small Business Owner of the Year.

Maybe you can help us. If you've been in business for at least a year, are a founder and majority owner of your company, and employ fewer than 100 people, enter the contest (see details on page 94). In exchange, we'll give you the opportunity to win a grand prize of $5,000 in merchandise from Office Depot, plus a few extra bonus prizes. Who knows? Our quest for the Small Business Owner of the Year could lead directly to your welcome mat, and that's something you'd be hard pressed to top.

Solitary Confinement

Have You placed yourself under "house arrest"? Loneliness is the number-one complaint I hear from homebased business owners. I've been working from home for more than 30 delightful, richly social years, and I'm convinced that most people who experience working solo as a curse have brought it on themselves.

Because most homebased business owners have left salaried jobs to go out on their own, they often experience withdrawal from the buzz of water-cooler gossip, office politics, professional ladder climbing and--let's be honest--office flirtations. Suddenly, everything's quiet. A "social event" in a typical home office is when you waylay your mail carrier or check your e-mail.

Working from home is the traditional American way of life. About a hundred years ago, 90 percent of us were self-employed, as doctors used their living rooms to treat patients and shopkeepers often lived behind their stores. Business, family and social activities were played out together in overlapping spaces.

Today, with all the communication tools every home office uses, we are slipping into a "virtual" life that may bring us business contacts across the globe but doesn't satisfy our need to mix it up. Having a computer, a modem, a telephone and a television, plus services that deliver everything from software to champagne, allows us to cocoon. And that's why we slip-slide into shells of apparent self-sufficiency. Then we complain about being lonely outposts of entrepreneurship. We may be "wired," but we don't feel connected. We begin to miss the corporate office maze of cubicles. Sure, they were "veal fattening pens," but at least we went to lunch every day with colleagues and friends.

So why trade the corporate beehive for a home office hamster cage? Get out there and boogie, dear pioneers. You're reinventing the original spirit of enterprise that was the earliest theme of American life--living resourcefully and independently but in the spirit of community.

Some advice? Make it a central part of your professional freedom to celebrate that long-awaited phone call or new client by going out to lunch. And why not have lunch with your old company gang? You'll be keeping old friendships alive and may find new contacts to help your career thrive. Or invite them over for a barbecue. Another way to stay connected is to give back to your community. Here are three examples:

  • A consultant can devote his or her trouble-shooting skills to problem-solving at a local school, civic group or charitable organization.
  • A tax preparer can offer free services to low-income people.
  • A landscape designer can organize a team to clean up a favorite park.

Also consider teaming up with another homebased business, one that complements your service or product, turning community service into a team sport. The word-of-mouth appreciation that hums through your community will be music to your ears.

Remember, you're working from home, not just at home. Stay in touch.

Contact Sources

American Dietetic Association, (800) 366-1655

David Lubman & Associates, (714) 373-3050, dlubman@ix.netcom.com

Home office workshop leader and author Jeff Berner can be reached at