From the September 1996 issue of Startups

For some homebased entrepreneurs, starting their business is as easy as declaring that they are in business. They use every part of the house to accommodate the business. They use every drawer for stashing receipts, invoices and other items that deal strictly with the business. And friends, family and just about anybody else passing by is free to interrupt business at the drop of a paper clip. Is it any wonder, then, that many homebased businesses suffer from a poor image? Is it any wonder that homebased-business owners often neglect legal and tax obligations until the last minute? Is it any wonder that many of these businesses don't stay in business?

That's not to say that all home-based entrepreneurs conduct business in this manner. In fact, with the influx of corporate refugees into the homebased arena, a new wave of professionalism has swept the home office. Entrepreneurs now set aside specific rooms for office use only. Within these home offices, the owners conduct business away from the disturbances of family, friends and the other little distractions that crop up each day. They install separate business phone lines and use cutting-edge office equipment. Eventually, a room in a house metamorphoses into a professional's office.

An Office is an Office

The first thing you have to do when setting up a homebased business is to establish rules for yourself, your family and your friends that separate your home life from your work life. This begins with the office. It is the boundary where home life stops and work life begins. When you are in your office, you are conducting business.

Your home and business should not mix, they should co-exist. Isolating your office from your family life allows you to conduct business without distractions. You can start creating boundaries by approaching your home business as a business. That means developing a sense of professionalism.

One of the most significant but least tangible problems homebased entrepreneurs face is creating and maintaining a professional image. These are some things you can do to build professionalism:

Keep regular business hours so that work seems like work.

Build a separate entrance to your office so visiting clients or business associates won't have to traipse through your house to get to your office.

Establish a family time and a work time. Don't let personal matters intrude upon your work time if at all possible, and don't let business matters interfere with the time you've set aside for family.

Make provisions for child care if business demands are such that you cannot adequately care for your children and the business at the same time.

Rent a mailbox at the post office or a private mailbox service in order to establish a commercial address rather than a residential one.

Install a separate phone line for your business.

Maintain all business records in your office.

Have letterhead, business cards, envelopes, note pads and other office supplies printed with your business name, logo and post office box address on them.

Develop some sort of messaging system, whether it is an answering machine, answering service or a voice mail service, so that clients can leave messages in your absence.

The homebased business basics listed above may seem very conventional and too restrictive, but think about what you expect from the businesses you deal with. How would you react if a toddler answered the phone when you called a corporate client? How would you feel if a supplier sent you an invoice written on a piece of scratch paper? As a business person, you take certain ways of doing things for granted. You assume that the businesses you deal with will work according to certain professional conventions.

Nonetheless, as a homebased-business owner, you may feel tempted to skirt convention. In fact, being unconventional may be what prompted you to work at home in the first place. Even so, disregarding the basic rules of business won't work to your benefit in the long run. Making do without printed stationery and a well-planned phone system may not cut into your productivity, but it won't boost your image. And for most homebased businesses, taking advantage of every opportunity to foster a professional image is critical.

A retail operation develops its image in a variety of ways. Its merchandise, its location, its signs, its window dressing, its salespeople-all of these factors add up to a certain obvious public perception. But if you conduct business from your spare bedroom or den, you can use none of these attention-getting devices. Your business image depends on whatever limited interaction you may have with clients (and potential clients)-which means that every detail counts.

How will your business come into contact with the outside world? One way is in print, so pay close attention to your logo, stationery and business cards. If you aren't artistically inclined, hire a professional. Although a company logo may seem like a trivial thing, an attractive, cleverly designed logo can go a long way toward helping your company stand out in your customers' minds.

Reprinted with permission from Entrepreneur Magazine Group's Business Start-Up Guide #1804: The Homebased Entrepreneur. To order, see page 97, or call (800) 421-2300.

Online Help

Here are some Web sites devoted to homebased business. Use them to gather information, look for specific homebased business products and simply to network with other homebased business owners.

The National Association of Home Based Businesses has a Web site at http://www.usahomebusiness.com which tells about the association and has listings of homebased business opportunity offerings.

At http://www.clickshop.com/HomeExec/html) you'll find home office products, services and information sources.

At Women's Connection Online http://www.womenconnect.com/WCO/bu8105/html you'll find a great article containing six steps you should take before you start your homebased business.

The Home Office Association of America http://www.hoaa.com/bckgrnd.html has the home office bill of rights on their home page. These are rules, regulations and zoning laws that the association is trying to get changed around the country. Visit this site to get involved in changing these laws.

The B.C. Homebased Business Network http://www.octonet.com/~homebase offers networking opportunities, as well as links to your own Web page, should you have one.