Q: I'm in the process of creating a business plan for a homebased business that I would like to start. I will be selling products like T-shirts and novelty items. But I have come to a point in the business plan that has me stumped. The problem is, I live in an apartment. What if a customer wishes to return an item that they purchased from me? How unprofessional would it be to have a return address listing an apartment?
A: You're right--creating a professional image from the get-go is important, and it can be particularly challenging for homebased entrepreneurs. Nowadays, people are much more accepting of the idea of operating a business from home, but it's taken some time for everyone to get past the stereotypical image of the homebased entrepreneur waltzing around the house in bunny slippers and making frequent visits to the refrigerator. Still, it pays to give yourself every advantage in starting a business, so it pays to look as professional as possible.
Deciding whether to use your home address for business purposes is a matter of what that address is. Something like 1114 Grove Ave. sounds perfectly fine, but, as you indicate, something like 1114 Grove Ave., Apt. 4, probably doesn't. Luckily, there are solutions. Since you'll evidently be doing some heavy shipping and perhaps dealing with returns, consider using a mail-receiving service, such as Mail Boxes Etc. These services provide you with a street address and a suite number rather than a post office box number (which some people perceive as questionable in itself). They'll also generally just save you a lot of headaches, handling everything from packing and shipping to package tracking. Shop around in your area for a service that's conveniently located to your house and reasonably priced.
You should also think about how you're going to handle mail on a daily basis. Set up a system, and stick to it. Otherwise, before long you'll find yourself buried in paperwork, with a long list of angry customers to deal with. Designate an area in your home office just for mail-related tasks, whether it's incoming or outgoing mail. In your case, it might be best to set up a large table where you can sort and process mail and prepare items for shipping. Don't just use your desk--with all the other business-related paperwork that goes along with running a home office, you don't want to mix and mingle. And pick a time when you'll be able to deal with mail every day--whenever it's most convenient and won't interfere with any other pressing activities.
When sorting through incoming mail, try to handle each piece of mail only once rather than looking at it and setting it aside to deal with later. Separate things into piles based on their priority--for example, items to be filed, items that need immediate action and items to be trashed. Then take care of each pile--and move on to something else.
In addition, consider setting up an e-mail account where customers can send you their inquiries electronically. This will cut down on excess mail and phone calls. Just remember to be diligent about checking your e-mail and responding to inquiries in a timely manner.
In time, you'll have your system down to a science and you'll be able to do it in your sleep. And that can only mean satisfied customers who will provide you with repeat business.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.
Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer in Southern California.