From the December 1998 issue of Startups

Is there any time of year more delightful than the winter holiday season? It's chock-full of fun, festivities--and distractions. For homebased business owners, the temptations are often even greater. So how can you resist the lure of making Christmas lists, shopping and decorating when you should be working?

The best strategy is a realistic one, says Denise Riches, owner of Aspen Communications, a homebased newsletter publishing and design firm in Irvine, California. First, be sure the work you're forcing yourself to do really needs to be done. "This is a stressful time of year, and increasing your stress level by setting unrealistic goals only adds to the problem," she says. "If something can wait until after the holidays, let it wait."

It's critical to plan ahead. Before the holiday season kicks into high gear, check with your clients to determine what their holiday schedules are and how they'll affect you. Also, if you want to take time off for yourself, you may need to coordinate that with your regular clients.

Riches belongs to a homebased business networking group, and members motivate one another to stay focused during the holiday season. Also, if she's having trouble completing routine work, Riches tackles year-end tasks instead, which keeps her productive but provides a change of pace.

But sometimes, Riches concedes, the best strategy is to briefly give in to the lure of the holidays. Take a break, do a little Christmas shopping--but then get back to work.


Jacquelyn Lynn is a freelance writer in Winter Park, Florida.

Over The Line

It's not just a boss/employee conflict, nor is it only a big-company problem: Sexual harassment in the workplace occurs in a variety of relationships, including those between customers and suppliers. And it doesn't have to be a blatant demand for sex in exchange for business; sexual harassment can take the form of a wide range of inappropriate behaviors, including a client who tells dirty jokes, makes repeated sexual innuendos or uses offensive language.

As a business owner dealing with a problem with a customer, you don't have legal recourse under the statutes governing sexual harassment in the workplace, says Carol Hepburn, a partner at Campiche Hepburn McCarty & Bianco PLLC in Seattle. Although you may have other legal avenues, depending on the laws in your state and the creativity of your attorney, you probably wouldn't want to get involved in a lawsuit anyway. "Most people just want the harassment to stop," says Hepburn. "You're better off if you can have a decent and comfortable working relationship."

Hepburn, who has represented victims as well as individuals and companies accused of sexual harassment, offers this advice for dealing with customers who are harassing you:

  • Do a cost/benefit analysis. Consider how much business or profit the customer represents and how much discomfort and distraction the situation is causing. Determine at what point the grief caused by the harassment outweighs the benefit of the business.
  • Consider the motivation. If you can, determine the motive behind the inappropriate behavior. Is the customer deliberately trying to make you uncomfortable? Is he or she trying to establish a power position or trying to make a personal advance? Or, as Hepburn says is often the case, is he or she simply unaware of how much the inappropriate behavior offends?
  • Set boundaries. When you're the target of inappropriate behavior, discuss it with the other person in a nonconfrontational manner and let him or her know that you're not going to tolerate it.
  • Change the contact environment. If you've been meeting with the client at your home or in his or her private office, consider changing the location to somewhere public, such as a restaurant or a more open location at the customer's facility. You should also try to cut back on face-to-face contact and conduct business over the phone or via e-mail. This not only reduces the opportunity for offensive behavior, but also lets you avoid a potentially uncomfortable confrontation.

If you find you're having a hard time developing an effective action plan for dealing with the harassment, Hepburn suggests a therapy session with a counselor. "I know a lot of professionals who use therapists in this manner," she says. A good therapist can help you understand your feelings and come up with a solution that's comfortable and workable for you.

Love Letters

There's no way to avoid an occasional "one of those days," days when suppliers don't deliver, customers are unreasonable, the computer has a mind of its own, and you can't seem to do anything right. That's why Sue Clift maintains what she calls her "Love Letters File."

Whenever Clift, owner of Your Best Impressions Inc., a homebased custom gift basket service in Salt Lake City, gets a complimentary card or note from a customer, she puts it in a special file. "Whenever I feel like I've done something wrong, or if I've had a bad day, I go through that love letter file," she says.

Customers have written such messages as "I wanted you to know how much I appreciate your service. It really makes my job easier knowing I can call you" and "You're a very positive and motivation- al person." Such morale-boosting messages come in a variety of forms, from formal letters to little notes scribbled on check stubs.

"When you work at home alone, it's easy to get discouraged," Clift says. "Reading these notes reminds me I can't please everybody all the time, no matter how hard I try. But I've touched a lot of people in a very positive way."

Say Ahhh...

Managers make it standard practice to give employees an annual performance evaluation; you go to the doctor (or at least you ought to) for a yearly checkup; you even have the air conditioning and heating system in your home serviced once a year. Shouldn't you be doing the same for your company?

Absolutely, says Richard Saltz, owner of Business Innovative Strategies International, a management consulting firm for start-up and small businesses in Weston, Connecticut. "How else will you know how well you're doing or if you've achieved the goals you've set?"

Saltz suggests setting goals at the beginning of the year, doing periodic checks along the way, and then completing a thorough year-end evaluation. In addition to measuring your sales and revenue production, consider these other areas that deserve an annual review:

  • Expenses. Study where you're spending money; look for patterns and ways you can reduce your expenses.
  • Equipment. Is your office equipment adequate for your production levels? Take a look at your computer system, fax machine and overall office setup, and be sure it still meets the needs of your growing company.
  • Insurance. If your business has changed, your insurance needs may have changed, too. Take a few minutes to review your coverage with your agent, confirming that you have the most appropriate and cost-effective insurance for your current circumstances.
  • Vehicle. Are your car and other company vehicles appropriate for your business and in good condition? Saltz points out that driving clients around in an older car that has a good deal of wear and tear on it isn't the best way to impress them.
  • Tax planning. You must look back before you can look forward. "At the end of the year, you realize what you should have done last year," Saltz says. "So jump on it for next year. Understand the mistakes you made so you don't make them again."

Maximum Security

Your home may be your castle, but just how safe and secure is your home office?

John Bos, a consultant with Northwestern Ohio Security Systems Inc. in Lima, Ohio, offers these tips for protecting your home office:

  • Take a look at your home through the eyes of a criminal. You need to determine how vulnerable you are.
  • Duplicate important data and store it off-site. Develop a system for regular backup procedures.
  • Install exterior lighting, and use timers and/or motion sensors.
  • Check outside for places potential criminals could hide.
  • If you travel, have someone pick up your mail and newspapers.
  • If employees have keys to your house, change the locks once a year.
  • Consider an alarm system to protect both your home and your business.

Ch-Ch-Changes

The pace of today's ever-changing world can seem overwhelming, but it presents a wealth of opportunities if you're prepared, says Lynne R. Christen, a personal business coach in Mary Esther, Florida. To keep change a positive element in your business, Christen suggests the following:

  • Accept the certainty of uncertainty. "Our world is filled with ambiguity, shifting priorities, unanswered questions and new ways of doing things," Christen says. "Accept the certainty of uncertainty. It's here to stay."
  • Become a quick-change artist. It's natural to resist change and attempt to maintain a familiar environment, but that path is a dead-end street, says Christen.
  • Discard your prejudices. Prejudices can stifle your creativity and limit your ability to respond to change. Open your mind and let go of your prejudices.
  • Watch trends and collect ideas. Pay attention to what's going on, and create an idea file where you can stash tidbits that catch your attention for later review and use.
  • Cultivate and maintain a solid resource network. "Never pass up an opportunity to interact with another human being," says Christen.
  • Lighten up. "The benefits of optimism and a sense of humor can't be overestimated in a climate of change and chaos," Christen says.
  • Stop waiting. Says Christen, "Change doesn't wait, and the opportunities found in change today may not be there tomorrow. Develop a sense of urgency, and couple it with action. The best insurance for tomorrow is the best use of today."

Contact Sources

Aspen Communications, (949) 551-4265, info@aspencomm.com

Business Innovative Strategies Inter-national, 8 Tower Dr., Weston, CT 06883, (203) 222-8971

Campiche Hepburn McCarty & Bianco PLLC, 300 Elliott Ave. W., #550, Seattle, WA 98119, (206) 281-9000

Lynne R. Christen, 390 Angela Ln., Mary Esther, FL 32569, lyncoach@gnt.net

Northwestern Ohio Security Systems Inc., (419) 227-1655, http://www.nwoss.com

Your Best Impressions Inc., clift@sisna.com