Prospective franchisees seeking an opportunity to work at home are in luck. There are a host of franchisors that have realized practically any business can be run just as successfully from home as from a storefront location, and that includes bookkeeping and financial services, consulting, children's services, computer training and repair, cleaning, home improvement, entertainment, home inspection, fitness, pet care, photography and travel businesses, just to name a few. In fact, many service-oriented franchise systems not only allow franchisees to work from home--now they encourage it.
Most of these franchise systems will spend considerable time training you how to work from home. They'll review the requirements for setting up your office, making sales calls and serving your customers. After all, working from home may be convenient, but it's more than just setting up a desk in a corner of your living room. It's a unique working style that you'll have to adjust to. And just in case your franchisor leaves out a few things, here are the basics of what you need to know to run a franchise from home.
Is it legal?
The first thing to realize is that not every community allows you to run a business from your home--especially if clients are coming to your house on a regular basis, or you need to park a truck in your driveway. Check with your local zoning board or government office for the rules in your town. If you're living in a planned community, cooperative or condominium, also check to see whether any rules or deed restrictions limit your commercial use of your property.
Except for a limited period of time or in unique circumstances, forget the notion of using your kitchen table or family room as your office. If you must use common quarters for a while, at least set aside an area that's used exclusively for work, and make sure your family understands that it's your headquarters, even when you're not at your desk.
Of course, the best choice is to use a spare bedroom, a section of your basement or some other isolated area of your home as your office. Creating distinct boundaries between your office and your living space will help you establish your franchise as a professionally-run operation.
Furniture and equipment
You'll be spending a lot of time in your office making phone calls, writing letters, maintaining your records, plus a million other tasks. So make sure you're comfortable.
Even on a limited budget, you can afford to have a professional office. A lot of stationery superstores and low-cost office-furniture retailers specialize in furnishing home offices. Also, consider buying used furniture. Thrift stores are a great source. Start with the essentials below. As you become more experienced in determining your needs, you can add additional pieces.
- Lighting. If your office doesn't provide you with natural lighting and overhead fixtures, get a good desk lamp. Halogen fixtures are popular these days, but be aware, they generate a lot of heat.
- Desk. Get one as big as you can fit comfortably into your space. No matter how neat and organized you intend to be, you'll eventually need a place to make piles. Having a large desk provides workspace, even when you're less than organized.
- Chair. This is the item on which you should spend some extra money. After long hours working at your desk, you'll know why a comfortable chair (preferably with arms that allow you to lean back) is a necessity. If your work area is carpeted, a carpet protector to put under your chair is a good investment.
- File cabinet. Every business produces paper, and you'll need a place to store and organize your records. Make sure your filing cabinet is adjustable so you can set up some drawers to accept legal-size paper and others to hold letter-size paper. You'll also need a cabinet with a lock. Even if you're working at home, there are times when it's appropriate to have your important papers secure.
If you're on a tight budget, many office supply stores sell file drawers made out of cardboard. These are great, as you can add drawers as needed. They also provide you with permanent storage boxes for your records. You may also want to consider a fireproof "safe" or cabinet for your more important records.
- Computer. You can get a top-of-the-line computer and printer package today for less than $1,000. In fact, many major computer companies, such as Gateway, even sell remanufactured equipment that comes with warranties. A host of resellers also have remanufactured computers from Dell, Sony, Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard and others. If you're planning on printing brochures, you might consider upgrading your printer. Speak to your computer salesperson about the software you'll need. Many computers come with the basic software required to get started.
- Copier. Yes, there's probably a Kinko's right around the corner. But every time you go out to print something, you lose time you could've invested in something more important--like getting off early and having dinner with the family. If you can afford it, get a basic copy machine to make those one or two copies a day you need. You can use the copy shops for larger printing jobs.
- Phone. You probably have a phone line coming into your home, but that's your home phone number. Invest in a phone line--maybe even two--for your office. Also set up a voice-mail account with your local phone company. Besides presenting a more professional image, it allows you to easily access your messages when you're on the road. I don't recommend call waiting for your business--this is perfectly acceptable for your home phone but is less than professional for most business applications. However, caller ID is essential. You don't want to miss that important call if you're on the line with someone else.
Invest in a good phone with speaker capability. If you can afford one, get a portable phone. For many people, a cell phone, instead of a landline, is a great option. Some cell phone plans are cheaper to use than landlines when it comes to long-distance calling.
Setting a schedule
One of the major problems with a home office is . . . it's in your home. It's so convenient to get up in the morning, put on a robe and work through dinner--and maybe a couple more hours after dinner. But, remember, you have a family and they need you, too.
Set a schedule and try to stick to it. Get ready in the morning as if you were going out to the office. Shower, put on business attire and get to work. Make it a habit. Take breaks during the day. Try to end your day on schedule as well. Everybody works overtime sometimes--some more than others--but don't get into a rut of working all the time just because your office is nearby.
You're at work when you're in your office. Don't allow your friends and family to drop in uninvited, and don't plan your day around doing everybody else's errands. Ask them to respect your workday just as you do theirs.
The nice thing about working within a franchise system is being able to learn from the experience of your fellow franchisees. When you're putting together your equipment shopping list, you might try calling other franchisees who are working from home and ask them for any advice they might have. Also, if you've come from a corporate environment and miss those "water fountain" chats, who better to spend a few minutes with than one of your fellow franchisees? Having another colleague--or two or more--whom you regularly talk to about what's happening at your "office" is one of the major benefits of working within a franchise system.
Michael H. Seid is managing director of Michael H. Seid & Associates, a West Hartford, Connecticut- and Troy, Michigan-based management consulting firm specializing in the franchise industry. Seid recently co-wrote Franchising for Dummies(IDG Books) with Wendy's founder Dave Thomas.