From the October 1998 issue of Startups

As of March 31, California became the first state to fully deregulate its electric power industry. Customers can now choose to either stay with their current electric utility company or purchase electricity directly from a nonutility provider. Aside from the 10 per-cent rate reduction residential and small-business customers will receive regardless of whether or not they switch, homebased business owners in California have plenty to be happy about, says Dianne Dienstein of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Because utility distribution companies purchase the electricity they sell to consumers at the Alhambra, California-based California Power Exchange (PX), a competitive auction held on an hourly basis, customers can choose to be billed at an hourly rate that reflects hourly electricity prices at the PX. This rate decreases during off-peak periods as demand for electricity decreases. Customers who opt for the hourly rate billing option (which electricity providers must offer under the provisions of the deregulation bill) instead of a fixed rate stand to see big savings if they schedule their operations during off-peak periods.

Deregulation also means that environmentally aware consumers can choose their electricity providers based on how green their generating processes are. Consumers who abhor nuclear power plants, for example, have the option to buy only hydroelectrically generated power.

Currently, 20 states are in various stages of deregulating their electric power industries; Congress, meanwhile, is considering a national version of deregulation.


Jeff Zbar (jeff@goinsoho.com) is a homebased journalist and author of Home Office Know-How (Upstart Publishing).

A Different World

By Debra Phillips

It's the same world--and yet it's not. Steeped in tradition--proudly so--the Amish community sets itself apart from a nation that's just as proudly steeped in the latest, most sophisticated technological innovations. What possible bridge could there be between two such disparate cultures? The answer, interestingly enough, is entrepreneurship.

Yes, it's true: Entrepreneurship is alive and well among Amish people who for years depended on farming as their primary livelihood. Partly out of necessity, however, the Amish are making inroads into small business in general--and homebased business in particular. "As their families and communities grow, they've begun to look for other sources of income," explains Ron Webb, author of the academic study Microenterprise: An Economic Development Strategy--Lessons Learned in Pennsylvania recently released by the Research Institute for Small & Emerging Business. "So [the Amish have] moved into the business arena."

That's not the half of it, either. As noted in Webb's report, nearly all Amish-run businesses are successful--an impressive feat. Additionally, many of these businesses trade on an international scale--some to the level of more than $1 million in annual sales. What accounts for such a stellar track record? To know that, you have to know a little bit about the Amish people themselves.

First, and perhaps most obvious, the Amish are notoriously hard workers. "They have a tremendous work ethic," says Webb, who is also vice president and academic dean of Huntington College in Huntington, Indiana. "They work long hours and put themselves into whatever they do."

So far, so good. Yet hard work alone--American dream rhetoric notwithstanding--doesn't always guarantee entrepreneurial success. So what other factors contribute to the thriving Amish business community? "They don't refer to it this way, but essentially, [the Amish] have a very strong internship program," observes Webb. "If their young children are growing up with families in business, they're working in the family business. So by the time they're 18 years old, they're ready to start their own small business."

Perhaps the single biggest reason for Amish entrepreneurial success, however, lies in the very nature of their communities. "What comes naturally to the Amish is this tight local support network," says Webb. "Whether it's moral, financial or physical support, if somebody needs help of one kind or another, they really are there to help each other."

In a sense, it's the antithesis of competitive corporate-culture America. "They won't let one of their people fail, because [a failure] hurts everybody," Webb explains.

What the Amish have generally not been supportive of, needless to say, is the encroachment of modernization on their traditional world. Then again, depending on the community, there are varying levels of conservatism. "Some of them have become progressive through the use of computers and Web [sites]," says Webb. "There's a range of what's approved and what isn't."

Interestingly, Webb says many Amish businesses are started by women, with companies selling everything from food to crafts. As for male Amish entrepreneurs, traditional businesses like woodworking and metalworking are still favorites. "They're very astute," says Webb of the Amish small-business owners he's come across. "They're very shrewd. They're very creative, too."

And, as we pointed out from the beginning, these are entrepreneurs who are very successful as well--not that you'd necessarily know it. "They're very modest," says Webb. "Some of them are very, very wealthy. They just don't flaunt it."

Going Postal

By Charlotte Mulhern

Despite the fact that the U.S. Postal Service has realized profits of more than $1 billion per year since 1995, you'd better prepare yourself--and your business--for yet another postage hike.

That's because in June, the Postal Service's Board of Governors announced its decision to increase revenues an additional $2.4 billion as of January 10, 1999. That means postage prices will be rising again. Mailing first-class letters will soon cost an additional cent, increasing to 33 cents; Priority Mail will rise 20 cents to $3.20; Express Mail will increase $1 to $11.75; 3-pound Parcel Post packages will rise 57 cents to $4.25; and catalogs will increase 0.9 cents to 16.4 cents.

"It's a scary reality for mail order entrepreneurs," says Judy Weinstein, homebased owner of The Amberfield Collection in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, which sells gifts and accessories via mail order. "Mailing expenses are approaching what it actually costs to print the catalog. The costs are that high."

Weinstein is considering using UPS to send packages instead. According to David D'Onofrio of advocacy group National Small Business United in Washington, DC, that's to be expected. "[The hike] is going to increase costs some," he says. "This may get people thinking about alternative means of sending their [letters] and packages, especially in the homebased mail order business."

But D'Onofrio adds, "The general feeling in the small-business community is that the Postal Service is the least expensive and one of the more reliable methods of getting materials delivered. It's never good to see fixed costs go up like that for a small business, but it's inevitable."

That's little comfort to Weinstein, who sent 40,000 catalogs in her last mailing. She's now completely rethinking her marketing strategies to cope with the rising costs and has decided to test an online catalog. She also plans to write to Congress with her concerns on the matter. "In the meantime, it will cut tremendously into our profits," Weinstein says. "It will mean an extra expense."

Pain? No Gain

By Cynthia E. Griffin

Imagine you're a sprinter at a major race. You walk onto the track and settle into the starting block in preparation for an explosive start. Sound like the perfect plan for a record-breaking race? Nope. Any self-respecting sprinter will spot the glaring omission of a warm-up.

Without taking a few minutes to stretch, the only thing you might break is your body. The same principle applies when you're using the computer, says Houshang Seradge, an orthopedic surgeon who is board-certified in hand surgery. "People sit at a keyboard for eight hours a day without warming up their joints or stretching their muscles," says Seradge. "That's why they get into trouble."

Trouble can mean Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), tendinitis or other musculoskeletal disorders. In fact, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), musculoskeletal disorders are among the most prevalent medical problems, affecting 7 percent of the population and accounting for 14 percent of all physician visits and 19 percent of all hospital stays.

Musculoskeletal problems can affect almost any body part used repeatedly, says Philip Harber, MD, a UCLA professor and director of the university's occupational and environmental medicine program. "We've seen a real increase in carpal tunnel," says Harber, who adds that changing work styles have increased the frequency of that particular disorder.

Although CTS is probably the most widely known musculoskeletal disorder, the trapezius muscle between the neck and shoulder is where aches most commonly develop, says J. Steven Moore, MD, of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. This muscle is impacted by prolonged contractions, such as holding your arm so that your hand is poised over a keyboard or on a mouse. Wrist and forearm problems are the second most common afflictions.

So how do you know whether you're developing a musculoskeletal disorder? Look for a pain you've never had, then try to isolate the cause, suggests Dr. Lawrence Fine of NIOSH. Should you have early symptoms and keep working at the same pace, more serious problems may occur, including waking at night because of pain, numbness and tingling.

For tips on prevention, NIOSH's Web site (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/ephomed.html) offers solutions, and Moore, who is co-director of an ergonomics research center at Texas A&M University, offers this list of do's and don'ts:

  • Don't use your kitchen counter as a computer workstation.
  • Make sure your mouse and keyboard are side-by-side.
  • Keep your elbows adjacent to your body and your forearms horizontal as you type.
  • Try a wrist rest if you do significant amounts of typing, but don't rest your wrists on it while you're typing; your hands should be poised over the keyboard as you type.
  • Get a phone headset to avoid holding the phone between your shoulder and neck for prolonged periods.
  • Buy a chair that allows you to adjust the height and change the angle of the back rest and seat.

In addition to changing your office environment, experts stress doing daily and hourly exercises. Books are available to guide you through the exercises, although Seradge warns that these shouldn't take the place of a visit with a medical professional. Bob Anderson and Jean E. Anderson's Stretching at Your Computer or Desk (Shelter Publications Inc.) features total body stretches, while Bonnie Prudden recommends myotherapy (strategic pressure to remove chronic pain) in Pain Erasure (Ballantine Books).

While both medical and nonmedical intervention can work, you're the linchpin of the entire equation. If you don't take the time to acknowledge a potential problem, devise a solution and then follow through with it, the pain will persist.

Get The Facts

Not only is there not much research on what does and doesn't work for alleviating musculoskeletal disorders, there's not even consistency on what the disorders are called: repetitive motion syndrome, cumulative trauma disorder, tendinitis or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS)--take your pick.

All this confusion prompted Stephanie Barnes to create the Association for Repetitive Motion Syndrome (ARMS) in 1992. Barnes, who was diagnosed with CTS, says ARMS provides general and customized information for individuals and also maintains a list of support groups. For more information, write to ARMS at P.O. Box 514, Santa Rosa, CA 95402 or call (707) 571-0397.

TALK SHOW: The Lament Of The Work-At-Home Man

By Jeff Zbar

We know what you're thinking. You see some guy who works from home walking to the mailbox in the early morning sun, cup of Joe in one hand, portable phone in his shorts pocket. Your mind gets to thinking about his evil ways.

He's a corporate dropout, you smirk with disdain, someone who couldn't hack it in the real world. So he shoves his wife out the door every morning so she can slave at her job while he sits at home and pretends to ply some trade--all the while catching reruns of Hawaii Five-O and snatching up his spouse's net at week's end.

We've all suffered the snickers. We've been the bane of parents-in-law for half a generation now. Even my daughter has publicly misconstrued my career. When Miss Sheila asked a class of 5-year-olds what their parents did for a living, Nicole responded, "My mommy is a nurse, and my daddy works in his underwear." Egads!

You think being a man who works at home is all hack reruns and slack schedules? Put yourself in our flip-flops. In some ways, work-at-home women have it easier; they're more common, and men, by whatever reasoning, don't belong outside the corporate tower downtown.

We've been called "Mr. Moms" and "Soccer Dads." Heck, on the days my wife works, I tool around in a minivan, driving a carpool and fetching kids from extracurriculars--all while trying to earn my keep.

Truth be told (as if I have to explain myself to anyone--least of all those of you who really do understand this gig), you've got the wrong man. For the sake of work-at-home men and fathers everywhere, I'm here to set the record straight. We work at home because we want to. Sure, maybe we were once jetsam ditched by corporate America. Or maybe, like myself, we didn't like corporate life all that much and figured we could do it better on our own.

So here we are, raising our kids, taking control of our lives, and striving like the rest of our country's workers to earn a paycheck and make ends meet. It may not be glamorous. There's no water cooler to gossip around or annoying boss to commiserate about. And sure, we take chiding from others. But when my kids come home from school or my wife returns from work, I'm there to greet them.

Referring to my 10 years working from spare bedrooms in our various homes, a friend recently called me a "pioneer" on the work-at-home frontier. Maybe so. If that's the case, then I guess pioneers have to endure some arrows to settle the land.

But no one said anything about Lewis and Clark taming the West in a Dodge Caravan.

Home Office Towns

Metro areas in which the greatest number of people devoted a room or area of their home to work in 1997:

  • San Jose, CA
  • Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA
  • Orange County, CA
  • Ventura, CA
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Oakland, CA
  • Boulder-Longmont, CO
  • Washington, DC
  • Middlesex-Somerset-Hunterdon, NJ
  • Santa Rosa, CA

Source: National Decision Systems, Mediamark Research Inc.

Contact Sources

The Amberfield Collection, (800) 765-4888, fax: (888) 273-8644

California Public Utilities Commission, (800) 253-0500

National Small Business United, (800) 345-NSBU, http://www.nsbu.org

U.S. Postal Service, http://www.usps.com

Ron Webb, (219) 359-4008, rwebb@huntington.edu