From the December 1998 issue of Startups

You've thought about joining a homebased business association, but you're stretched thin as it is--you really don't have time to waste attending long meetings that consist mostly of chitchat, listening to information that doesn't help improve your bottom line, or dealing with someone trying to sell you services you don't need. In short, you don't have time to waste, period.

Homebased business association organizers who are out of step with the needs and lifestyles of homebased business owners find themselves with dwindling memberships and poorly attended meetings. Such was the case with the Homebased Business Association Inc. (HBBA) in Arizona.

At its peak, this for-profit organization, which had served greater Phoenix since the early 1990s, had as many as 200 people attending its events. Among the services and programs it offered were monthly meetings, seminars, an Independent Contractors Outsource Directory, a bimonthly newsletter, reduced costs on medical and dental insurance, and discounts on credit card services.

Despite these outward signs of prosperity, the HBBA officially merged with the Arizona Small Business Association (ASBA) in January. "[HBBA president] Eileen Glick decided to take another route in life and no longer operate a homebased business," says Janet Drez, chair of the Home-Based Business Council of the ASBA and a former HBBA member. "But she didn't want to leave members out in the cold. It was a pretty good fit, and the ASBA is able to offer members a lot more than the HBBA."

Although Drez doesn't know all the political reasons behind the demise of the HBBA, she does know this: Near the end, the HBBA's events and speakers were not meeting the needs and expectations of members, and the leadership's passion about homebased business had waned. "In associations, [passion] ebbs and flows like in any business. Maybe [Glick] didn't have the support around her to be able to pick up the ball when she burned out," Drez speculates.

The HBBA's story is not unique. In fact, three years ago Entrepreneur magazine compiled a list of homebased associations; today, almost one-third of those groups have dissolved or cannot be contacted. Over the same time period, an almost equal number of new associations has sprung up.

So what characteristics should you look for before joining a homebased business association to make sure it'll last and give you what you need? Leadership? Support from a larger organization? A core mission unique to homebased business owners? According to entrepreneurs who belong to such associations, the correct answer is all of these and more.

Marlene Van Diest says she gains distinct benefits from the Nebraska Home-Based Business Association. "It has great state conventions. The speakers have been wonderful, and I've gotten [marketing and networking] information from them," says Van Diest, who joined the organization at its inception in 1992 to obtain marketing information and updates on industry happenings around the country. The group (which could not be reached for inclusion in the chart below) also helped her 20-year-old Dunning, Nebraska, pottery manufacturing company, Sandhills Pottery, acquire merchant card status.

Michael Rodgers, who joined the Home Business Network in Millers, Maryland, last year after starting Carroll Delivery Services, a small-package delivery service in Westminster, Maryland, enjoys the opportunity to network with fellow members. "I learn about how others run their homebased businesses and how they balance working at home with their families," says Rodgers, a father of five.

Yet not all association members are satisfied customers. Beverley Williams, who previously belonged to chambers of commerce and women's business organizations, says, "Nobody was addressing my needs."

So the Rockville, Marlyand, desktop publisher went searching. What she found didn't thrill her. The few homebased business groups that existed, Williams says, "were a sham. All their [marketing materials] were so poorly done." She also felt the groups concentrated too heavily on selling their own products and didn't show a real interest in helping her.

After more research, Williams developed some guidelines she thought would make for a good association: It needs to be nonprofit and should not endorse any business opportunities. An association should also advocate and support the industry. In terms of structure, Williams believed an association should not sell its mailing list to the hundreds of people trying to reach the homebased business market. With these criteria in mind, Williams started the American Association of Home-Based Businesses as a local group in 1991; three years later, the association went nationwide.

Solid leadership is a key characteristic to look for in an association. "[Leaders] need to have the time and interest to invest in their association," says Patty Rai Smith, a charter member of the National Home-Based Business Design Team. "And they must possess enough business acumen to identify ways the organization can benefit [members]."

In compiling our list of homebased associations, we discovered some other critical characteristics of homebased associations that serve their members well:

  • Maintaining a narrow focus seems to be one key to survival. Membership is small in the majority of groups.
  • Many stronger organizations began in chambers of commerce or Small Business Development Centers; some have spun off and become independent, while others maintain close ties to their parent organizations.
  • One group, the Homebased Business Association of Rhode Island, has a paid executive director. This solves the problem of forcing a time-pressed entrepreneur to choose between directing the organization and running his or her own business.

To help you select the association that will meet your needs, check out our guide to some of the nation's homebased business organizations.

National Front

In our research of homebased business associations, one glaring question remains unanswered: Why is there no national organization representing the millions of homebased entrepreneurs doing business in the United States?

As with any complex issue, there's no simple answer. Perhaps the tendency of homebased entrepreneurs to be fiercely independent and exceptionally busy makes building a national organization especially challenging.

Another factor is that, unlike in organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers, no one profession unites homebased entrepreneurs. While manufacturers are manufacturers no matter where they are, homebased entrepreneurs are manufacturers, accountants, desktop publishers, software developers, and so on.

Consequently, if a national group were formed, what issues would it address? Are there concerns that cut across industry and geographic boundaries?

Of course there are. Zoning, security, independent contractor status, the right to privacy and tax laws impacting home office deductions are all issues that affect homebased business owners. And let's not forget the ongoing need for homebased businesses to promote a professional image.

But who would lead the group, and how should it be structured? One option would be to have an umbrella council with state representatives from industries with large numbers of homebased businesses. The council would serve as an advocacy body that promotes the interests of homebased entrepreneurs from the halls of Congress to Main Street, USA. It would be the organization people would turn to for demographic information, best practices and more.

Sound grandiose? You bet. But that doesn't mean it's not achievable. There are ample incentives for a national body to jell into a cohesive unit dedicated to obtaining the best for the millions who call their homes "the office."