When Peggy Isaacson left the corporate world seven years ago to launch Peggy Isaacson & Associates, a homebased human resources consulting firm in Orlando, Florida, she faced the unexpected challenge of dealing with the isolation that came with being on her own in business.
"I didn't have anyone to bounce ideas off of or to ask questions or brainstorm with," Isaacson says. Her solution was to create an advisory board--a team of colleagues she could turn to for guidance, support and sometimes just a friendly ear. "I chose the members of my board because I respected their abilities and expertise in their particular areas. I have an accountant, a marketing person, a client and an expert in my field. Except for the client, we're all homebased, so not only do they help me, but everyone has a lot to offer each other."
The board serves without compensation. "Most of our interaction is casual. We talk on the phone and [meet for] an occasional lunch," Isaacson says. "A couple of times a year, we'll have a dinner where the entire group gets together."
Isaacson credits her board with preventing her from making some serious mistakes and keeping her motivated and on track during difficult times. "Sometimes you just need someone who can look at your situation from an outside perspective to help you see what you really should do," she says, "and then maybe give you a little nudge in the right direction."
Jacquelyn Lynn is a freelance business writer in Winter Park, Florida.
Get A Grip
Though it makes not a sound, a handshake can speak volumes. "Your handshake says a lot about who you are, how you feel about yourself, and how you feel about the situation you're in and the people you're dealing with," says Hilka Klinkenberg, managing director of Etiquette International, an etiquette consulting firm in New York City.
To send a positive message with your handshake, Klinkenberg suggests extending your hand with the thumb up and open; wrap your fingers around the other person's hand and shake once or twice from the elbow, not the shoulder. The result will be a firm handshake that is neither too weak nor too strong.
Keep your right hand free so you'll always be prepared to shake hands. That means carrying a portfolio, briefcase or handbag in your left hand. At cocktail parties, hold your glass in your left hand to keep your right hand from becoming cold or wet.
Klinkenberg advises keeping the issue of handshakes in context. "Pay attention to the eye contact, general posture, and other body language to see if it supports the signal you're getting from the handshake." For example, not all cultures are comfortable with touching; people from such cultures may offer weak handshakes, but it doesn't necessarily mean these people are weak or ineffective.
Even so, in the United States, Klinkenberg says, "a handshake is really the appropriate greeting. You should do it every time you're introduced to somebody or whenever you begin and end a meeting. Get your hand out there--it shows that you're taking control of the situation."
To Tell The Truth
How candid should you be about the fact that you're a homebased business? Conventional wisdom says go ahead and spill the beans. As the number of homebased businesses and even corporate telecommuters continues to climb, so does the number of customers who are comfortable dealing with homebased operators.
The key, says entrepreneur George Nauck, is focusing on what you do, not where you do it. Nauck is the owner of Encore!!!, a sports performance measurement systems developer in Jacksonville, Florida. "I don't try to dazzle people with the size of my company," he says. "I have to impress them with what I can do and what I have done that no one else has been able to do."
Nauck doesn't make a big deal out of being homebased, nor does he try to hide it. He usually meets with clients either on their turf or at trade shows. But when the subject comes up, he is candid about being homebased. "It doesn't affect the quality of what I do, and I try not to make it an issue," he says.
If you sense a customer is uncomfortable with your homebased status, point out the advantages, such as how your lower overhead means you can pass along those cost savings. Using large businesses as your suppliers also enhances your credibility. Nauck's vendors, as well as his customers, are large international corporations.
How Am I Doing?
When you were an employee, feedback was probably important to you, but now who tells you how you're doing? Unfortunately, that's just one more thing you have to do yourself. Lia Huber, owner of Out of the Box Concepts, a San Francisco marketing firm, offers these suggestions:
*Write specific tasks necessary to accomplish your goals on a calendar. This lets you manage your daily work while giving you an overview of the big picture.
*Track your time. Huber uses an accounting program (QuickBooks Pro by Quicken) that makes it easy for her to record and categorize her time into billable and nonbillable work. "Time is your most valuable asset," she says. "I always have the timer on so I can analyze where I'm spending my time and check profitability."
*Ask your spouse or a family member to hold you accountable for your goals. Sit down with this person on a weekly or monthly basis, and share your goals and what you plan to do to reach them, as well as what you've done and how it worked. By doing this, Huber says, you can't just shrug off something you didn't do--you have to explain it to someone.
*Acknowledge your achievements. "Nobody is going to send you a memo saying `Great job!' " Huber says. "But when you've done a great job, take the time to recognize it and reward yourself. Go out to dinner, take a day off, buy a book--somehow give yourself the recognition you deserve."
I Vant To Be Alone
You know the type: clients who think that just because you work at home, you should be available to them any time, day or night, weekday or weekend. Is there an unwritten rule somewhere that says homebased business owners must keep the same hours as the local 7-Eleven? Terry Pearsall, president of Technical Products Ltd., a homebased aviation consulting firm in Sterling, Virginia, says most clients restrict their calls to traditional business hours. For managing those who don't, he offers these tips:
*Set business hours. Let your clients know that when it's 5 p.m. (or whenever), the home office is closed.
*Have a dedicated business line that routes calls into voice mail or an answering machine. When it's not convenient to answer, let the equipment take a message.
*Use a pager. This is advantageous if you travel a good deal or have clients outside your local area. Pearsall uses a nationwide paging service with a toll-free number and advises clients to use the pager instead of calling his office. Then he decides when to return the call.
*Encourage faxing and e-mail for communications that don't require an immediate conversation but can't wait for regular mail. Keep your fax machine on, and check your e-mail regularly. Reply to all messages promptly during business hours.
Making the sale is great, but the transaction isn't complete until you've been paid. "Regardless of the size of your company, if you extend credit to anyone, you need to establish and enforce credit policies," says David R. Gamache, an attorney with the St. Louis law firm Newman, Goldfarb, Freyman & Klein P.C. When extending credit, Gamache suggests you:
*Use a standard credit application form, and complete it for every customer. The application should tell you the company's legal name and the name it operates under; the principals' names; complete contact information, including who has the authority to make purchases and who you should call about invoices; physical and mailing addresses; phone and fax numbers; and any special instructions required to process your invoices.
*Be clear about your terms. Specifically state (either on the application or on a separate form) what your credit terms are and the consequences for failing to meet them. Gamache says this section is where you indicate what late fees, if any, you'll charge; that the customer is responsible for legal fees should such action become necessary; and the venue where a lawsuit would be filed. Have the customer sign a document acknowledging and agreeing to your terms.
*Ask for and check credit references.
*Get a personal guarantee. This gives you recourse if the company fails to pay. Simply add a line to your credit forms stating that the business owner will be personally responsible if the business fails to pay.
One caveat on the personal guarantee: Consider the marital status of the customer and the property laws of your state. "In states where property between husband and wife is held by the entirety, the personal guarantee should include the spouse," Gamache says. "Otherwise, the guarantee won't mean much." Check with your attorney to be sure you're using the most effective language in all your credit documents.
It may scream out as a blatant business blunder to many, but some small-business owners still think storing their business plans in their heads is just fine, thank you. They know where they want the business to go--isn't that enough? We think not.
The most important reason for putting your business plan in writing is that it forces you to think through what you're doing and where you're going. But that's not the only argument in favor of a written plan. Dan Steffen, director of the Market Research Center at the Utah Technology Finance Corp. in Salt Lake City, says there are a number of other practical reasons for getting your plan on paper:
*It is necessary support for funding requests. If you apply for a loan or seek outside investors, you'll be required to show a business plan that demonstrates your ability to create a plan and implement it.
*It identifies your successes and failures. Having a written business plan that you can refer to both as a historical document and as a guide for the future lets you clearly see what worked and what didn't work so you know what to do next.
*It acts as a guide for buyers or heirs. If you decide to sell the business, or if you die or become disabled and someone else takes over, a written business plan will help make the transition a smooth one.
Encore!!!, (904) 221-6525, email@example.com
Etiquette International, (212) 628-7209, http://www.etiquetteintl.com
Newman, Goldfarb, Freyman & Klein P.C., (314) 727-0220, firstname.lastname@example.org
Peggy Isaacson & Associates, (407) 290-1146, email@example.com
Technical Products Ltd., (703) 421-0762, fax: (703) 421-0763
Utah Technology Finance Corp., (801) 741-4240, http://www.ubrn.org