From the July 2000 issue of Startups

Corporate America, take note: Some of you just don't get the SOHO experience.

Today's SOHO workers strive to be professional corporate citizens, using technology and tools that mimic those they once used in the corporate tower. Heed their words: Your product offerings and customer support often don't deliver the human contact, expertise and speed needed to help homebased business owners who are overwhelmed, understaffed and generally stretched way too thin.

Customer service is iffy, often linked to voice-mail hell. Tech support? Don't make them laugh. They don't have the time to deal with that. Homebased business owners need software that helps them operate faster and more efficiently, computers and other tools that help them multitask, and customer service representatives who are trained to anticipate and service the specific needs of the homebased worker.

Serving these very specific needs for individual customers "may be unrealistic and seem over-demanding, and the economics may not make sense, but it's what we need," Julie Morgenstern, a long-time at-home worker and author of Organizing from the Inside Out, (Owl Books, $15) told 200 attendees at the recent SOHO Summit in Carlsbad, California. "If I, as a small business, can come across as a big business, that's going to help me thrive. I need vendors who get it and feel excited to be a part of our team. Our strength gets us through it, but we need your expertise."

Guess what, corporate denizens? Morgenstern isn't alone.

Soho Summit: A Meeting of Unlike Minds

Corporate marketers converged on Carlsbad, California, by the hundreds in early June to catch a better glimpse of this emerging--and puzzling--consumer group. The SOHO Summit is an annual conference designed to introduce companies to the SOHO movement.

For companies targeting an audience estimated at upwards of 26 million--if you include entrepreneurs and corporate employees who telework from home several days each month--it's an enigmatic group, said Terri Lonier, a principal with Working Solo Inc., the New Paltz, New York-based company that stages the Summit.

In fact, Lonier created the Summit for exactly that reason: to add clarity to a market that's huge but hard to understand. "For companies, the big take-away [from the Summit] is the clarification that they need to get inside the minds of at-home workers," she says. "For a lot of people, that's a big leap."

It's not easy. What this group has in buying power--$100 billion, according to IDC Research--it lacks in cohesion and unity. One called it a group of 26 million unique individuals.

With a new small business launching every 30 seconds and many at-home workers and teleworkers leaving the home office to return to the corporate workplace, Ray Boggs, vice president and lead researcher for IDC's SOHO team, calls it "a moving target." But with two million more people joining the ranks each year and more than 25 percent of U.S. homes sporting home offices, the dynamics are changing, Boggs says. Any consumer goods company with an office-oriented product can't afford not to be here. "This really gets into the mass market, true consumer kind of opportunity," he says.

It's an opportunity for the taking. Morgenstern admits she--like many small- and homebased business owners--are loyal to those companies that are loyal to them. It all starts with an understanding between the two. Know the audience--how they think, where they're going and what they need to get there--and then provide it to them, says Casey Hughes, a consultant with SmallOffice.com.

It's important for corporations targeting the SOHO set to build camaraderie and community between themselves and the home officer, Hughes says. How do the best companies open this door of opportunity? "Ask," says Hughes. Some of the best dialogues start--and continue--with two-way communications. Use comment forms on Web sites, electronic newsletters that solicit feedback, and customer service departments staffed by reps who really care and are given the right information to respond to callers' questions. "With the SOHO market, the conversation is the medium," Hughes says. "Engaging them in conversation creates a new channel of distribution."

Jay Conrad Levinson, author of the Guerrilla Marketing book series, agrees. Corporations often have unrealistic expectations when it comes to marketing to an audience as large and diverse as the home office set, he says. Marketers need to show commitment to their target audience. They need to create the right messages and measure how well their products and messages are received emotionally by the customer. They need to engage their customers in more dialogue to gauge what they need in products and services.

Between 70 and 80 percent of repeat business is lost because there's no follow-up, Levinson says. Companies need to convince small businesses that they're committed to providing the products and services they need to be profitable. "What makes marketing work? Commitment," explains Levinson. "[Successful marketers are] willing to show what commitment can do."

Partnering to Serve You Better

One of Lonier's admitted goals at the Summit was to help the corporations in attendance build their "golden Rolodex," a list of new allies with whom they could partner in strategic alliances to better corner this space. Many were there to do just that.

Ravi Agarwal, founder and chairman of small-business e-commerce provider BizLand.com, was at the Summit to network. Consider his core audience: 50 percent of his customer base has fewer than five employees. He was in Carlsbad to discover like-minded companies looking to successfully serve the home office set. "We want to see who else is in this space," he says.

So does Anthony Segil, director of business development with ePolicy.com, an online insurance provider. Most of his company's new business is coming from homebased business owners. It's important, Segil says, to learn more about this audience, and possibly pick up some tips from and develop some synergies with those who are successfully targeting the at-home worker.

The home office market is fragmented and hard to target, he said. Partnerships could help build a more cohesive message. Maybe he could find a partner to build a virtual community, where homebased officers' commonalties, needs and insights could be shared. Segil reports that it's that lack of homogeneousness that throws his marketing people. He admits, "Whoever's bright enough to figure that out wins."

Summing Up the Summit

It's Tuesday afternoon. Lonier is sitting in the conference room, empty but for her staff and hotel crew breaking down the equipment. Already planning the June 2001 event to be held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Lonier was looking back on the success of this year's event. More than 200 marketers gathered to share insights and ideas, and build that golden Rolodex that could create relationships to better help them target the elusive homebased business owner.

More than anything else, Lonier's helped deepen the dialogue between the home officer and the corporate marketer who seeks to work with them, she says. If the software makers, service providers and e-commerce companies can get inside the heads of at-home workers, they could make customers--no, partners--for life.

"For a lot of people, that's a big leap," Lonier surmises, knowing that many corporate marketing executives--especially those who didn't attend the event--don't know what they're missing in the SOHO market. "It really isn't the size of the office space. It's the size of the vision."

Morgenstern agrees. Please her, and you please her ever-widening circle of comrades, from clients to fellow homebased officers to other vendors whom she works with and talks to.

"[When you] service a small business, you're serving all the clients that that small business comes in contact with," she says. "People who take the time to understand what our business is about, share their expertise, respond quickly and feel excited about becoming a part of my team will be my partners."


Journalist and author Jeffery D. Zbar has worked from home since the 1980s. He writes about home business, teleworking, marketing, communications and other SOHO issues.