Do you get the respect you deserve? An examination of the good, the bad, and the (sometimes) ugly misconceptions that plague homebased business.
Magazine Contributor
13 min read

This story appears in the June 1998 issue of HomeOfficeMag.com. Subscribe »

The thing about respect is that it isn't measurable. It isn't tangible. It's as impalpable as the air we breathe--yet it matters so very, very much. Is it vital to business success? We'd venture to guess that 99.9 percent of our readers would answer in the affirmative. Nonetheless, for homebased entrepreneurs, respect hasn't always come easily.

Consider the experience of Beverley Williams. Eleven years ago, when she was a desktop publishing entrepreneur, Williams hung out the metaphorical shingle and launched her Rockville, Maryland, business. The reactions she got--reactions that had nothing to do with the quality of her work, mind you--weren't everything she'd hoped for. "There were raised eyebrows and `Oh, sure, you're really working' [comments]," Williams recalls. "Even my father used to call me at 10 o'clock in the morning and say, `Well, have you gotten dressed yet?' It was just hard [for people] to believe that somebody could really and truly work at home."

Now we know what you're thinking, and it's our turn to answer in the affirmative: Yes, homebased business does receive far more respect than it ever has before. Yet for all the milestones achieved, the lack-of-respect issue remains something of a millstone around the necks of those who choose to work and live under the same roof. Far from an insignificant nuisance, this lack of respect manifests itself in the form of outdated zoning laws and apathetic legislators. Then, too, there are those wince-inducing media portrayals of bunny-slipper-clad homebased entrepreneurs. Depending on your experience, you may also encounter reluctant bankers, skeptical friends and a cadre of well-intentioned neighbors who mistake home time for leisure time. Taken in sum, these grievances add up to an ongoing dilemma for homebased business owners.

Reality Check

Let us begin not with the dilemma in its entirety, but with a simple five-letter word, one that should never, ever be uttered within earshot of any homebased entrepreneur. The word--need you ask?--is "hobby." The inference that an entrepreneur's business is analogous to, say, stamp-collecting, can only be thought of as demeaning.

Williams, who founded the Rockville, Maryland-based American Association of Home-Based Businesses (AAHB) in 1991, is well-acquainted with this misconception. "I got a phone call from a gentleman not too long after I started the association," she reflects. "His question to me was, `What kind of businesses do you have as members?' You could tell by the tone of his voice he had a preconceived idea that I was a little old lady sitting at home crocheting booties for a consignment store."

That, of course, is not the reality. Indeed, as the technological revolution keeps humming away, homebased entrepreneurship is a study in sophistication. "Homebased businesses are very much ahead of the loop," says Gaithersburg, Maryland, homebased management consultant Ronald Wohl, 55. "Most homebased businesses have computers, and they use them for communication, e-mail and the Internet."

"We have all we need through technology," concurs Jennifer J. Johnson, 35, whose Aptos, California, marketing, public relations and media services firm electronically subcontracts work out to fellow homebased operators throughout the country. "We're now in this information-enlightened age."

This enlightenment isn't purely functional, however. As technology enhances homebased business capabilities, a welcome byproduct appears to be enhanced respectability. "Technology has absolutely driven this," says Eileen Kugler, 47, who launched her Springfield, Virginia, public relations company six years ago. "Homebased businesses are no longer something you hide or make excuses for. In some ways, you're an entrepreneur on the cutting edge."

Strictly Personal

Cutting edge or not, homebased business owners must contend with family members and neighbors who don't always grasp the seriousness of the entrepreneurial situation. Johnson, for one, says even though her husband is genuinely supportive of her business, he still makes the occasional misstep. "[He has] a tendency to think that because I'm home, that means I can do a lot of errands," she explains.

For his part, 38-year-old homebased graphic designer Bruce Gore learned early on that friendly neighbors could easily interfere with business productivity. "It was an educational process," says Gore of the time it took to get the point across to neighbors that he was working during the day. "People tend not to take [homebased businesses] seriously," the Brentwood, Tennessee, entrepreneur observes. "It's becoming more accepted, though."

"The message has to go out loud and clear to everyone that you're running a business," says Alice Bredin, small-business advisor for the American Express Small Business Exchange Web site. If friends or neighbors stop by, tell them you'd be more than happy to visit with them if time permits. And if time doesn't permit? Well, just say no.

In The Zone

Undoubtedly to the consternation of many homebased entrepreneurs, the government doesn't seem to have a problem saying no to them. We refer, of course, to the long-running debates centered around zoning laws.

"When you don't have laws that acknowledge that people want to work out of their homes, you're in the stupid zone," says West Hills, California, homebased video production entrepreneur Alessandro Machi, 37. "If the city says `Oh, you can't work out of your home [just because] we don't have anything written about it,' that scares me. There's no logic to it."

Not to mention it's perceived as disrespectful. "We're not considered a primary force," continues Machi, who has done his share of lobbying to change the zoning landscape in Los Angeles. "The only way [the government] could respect us is to say `We want to make your life easy because we understand that having a successful homebased business might be the hardest thing you've ever done.' They could make it simple for us."

No disrespect intended, but somehow the words "simple" and "government" don't appear to happily coexist. "I don't think it's changing fast enough, but it is changing, and that's the good news," Williams says of zoning restrictions that plague her association's membership nationwide. "We haven't had the complaints from homebased business owners [recently] that we've had previously. So it's very positive--it's just slow-moving."

Management consultant Wohl knows a thing or two about the slow-moving wheels of government. "Looks like the fourth time is a charm," he says wryly, of the oft-rejected, pro-homebased business zoning legislation he's hoping will soon be approved by the state of Maryland. "We want to [make it] so having a homebased business will be a right."

Shades Of Gray

Right and wrong--and never the twain shall meet. Or so you'd think. Given the complexity of zoning laws, though, maybe it isn't all that surprising to stumble upon a few shades of gray in the palette. If respect really is the issue, then Duston Jensen makes a compelling argument against the idea that state and local authorities disregard homebased businesses. As the manager of the tax and license division of the city of Tacoma, Washington, Jensen routinely shuts down homebased companies that run afoul of the law--but his reasoning may not be what you'd expect.

It's not that Jensen doesn't like homebased entrepreneurs--he simply wants them to follow the rules. "I want to give [homebased businesses] respect and treat them the same as I would treat a major corporation downtown," Jensen says. "They have just as many rights. We recognize them as a valuable asset to the city."

Still, many entrepreneurs don't identify themselves as being homebased because they feel the laws don't always make sense for their particular business. "The problem is, you get exposed to all these rules and laws that don't acknowledge your [specific situation]," says Machi. "They were written for other kinds of businesses--not homebased businesses."

Others see things differently, however. Wohl maintains it's better to face your problems than to ignore the laws and risk being reported by a commercial business or a neighbor who has a negative view of homebased businesses.

In addition, any diminishing of the numbers presumably diminishes whatever political clout homebased business can claim. "I don't think we get enough credit for the number of people who are running homebased businesses right now," says Williams. "Part of the difficulty is in trying to prove how many people are actually doing this. A lot of people either don't have to be registered or hide the fact that they're running a homebased business."

Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

Of course, government authorities aren't the only ones homebased entrepreneurs are tempted to be less than forthcoming to. Will potential clients think less of you if they know you're homebased? "I never [used to say] I was at a home office," admits public relations entrepreneur Kugler. "I really felt that would have been a big issue. Gradually, though, I'd hear more and more people say `I'm working from home.' So I think it's become less of an issue."

"Most people I talk to are open about it," agrees the American Express Small Business Exchange's Bredin. "It's really irrelevant to clients or customers."

"They don't ask, and I don't tell," Wohl sums up succinctly. "It's not a necessity of business."

What about members of the banking community? Is it more difficult for homebased entrepreneurs to get loans and have access to the same financial programs that other small-business owners do? "In most cases, if your financials are really strong and you write a great business plan and you have some clients under your belt, a bank will probably give you a loan--[provided] your personal credit is also good," Bredin says. "That's what bankers have told me."

Williams, too, has queried bankers on this very issue. "The difficulty for them is that, in the past, homebased businesses have been fly-by-night operations," she says. "There is still concern because so many homebased businesses start off on shoestring budgets."

When she began her business last year, marketing entrepreneur Johnson wasn't quite sure what to expect from banks. "I was a little nervous about bankers coming to my house," she recalls. "I wondered what the outcome would be--but I'm delighted with my bank's response. The service I've received has been amazing."

Not that the beginning was all that auspicious. "It was kind of a funny scene," Johnson says of the visit her banker paid to her homebased business when it was located in Salt Lake City. "The day of this meeting was right after a big snowstorm. We had kind of a steep driveway, so the banker had to practically use a tow rope [to reach the house]."

And yet everything worked out in the end, slippery driveways notwithstanding. "Business is changing," Johnson says. "[Banks] recognize home offices require a different approach."

Image Consciousness

Any discussion of respect and homebased business would be incomplete, however, without addressing the approach taken by another segment of society--the media. Just how prevalent is that bunny-slipper-clad entrepreneurial image anyway?

"Some media people still make fun of homebased businesses," says Wohl, "but it's decreasing."

"It used to be that you rarely saw a story about a homebased business in the business section," Williams points out. "[The story] would be in the style section, and there would be a picture of a mom and her kids working together in the office. That's OK--but if that's the only image you see, then that's your perception of homebased business. And that's not what your average homebased business is. But it's beginning to change [and be seen in] a much more positive light."

Still . . . bunny slippers have a nasty way of creeping into the spotlight, don't they? Johnson tells of one broadcast journalist who couldn't seem to shake his preconceptions. "The TV reporter who interviewed us sort of decided from the beginning that one of the jokes he wanted to lead off with was, `Hey, do you hang around in your pajamas all day?' And, sure enough, that ended up being the lead of the story."

Respectfully Yours

We wouldn't want to end this story without mentioning one more person in the homebased business respect equation. That person is you. Let's face it: If you think less of your business because it's homebased, it logically follows that others will, too. The question is, do you?

At the risk of sounding redundant, we expect 99.9 percent of our readers would respond in the negative. But that doesn't mean self-respect issues are easily overcome, especially during start-up.

"You go through the ["Saturday Night Live"] Stuart Smalley thing where you look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself you're good enough, you're smart enough, and gosh darn it, you can do this," says Johnson.

"I'm a big believer in the idea that if homebased business owners aren't getting the respect they think they deserve, then they need to look at themselves," adds Bredin. "Do you refer to your home office as your office--or do you talk about it as your home?"

Video production entrepreneur Machi waxes philosophical. "In the end, if you do a good job, you're likely to convert the people you work with," he says. "Anybody who's worked with me respects me."

When Your Shipment Comes In

Whether or not you spend much time thinking about it, your role as a homebased business owner automatically gives you another role--that of consumer. You need to purchase office equipment. Or you have to choose a long-distance carrier for business calls. Then, too, you'll probably need to select a delivery service. Plenty of choices, right?

Fortunately, all the homebased business owners now making these choices create a significant market of buyers--much too significant for corporate America to ignore. "Companies today are spending more time than ever trying to reach homebased businesses," observes Ronald Wohl, founder of a Gaithersburg, Maryland, homebased management consulting firm. "They recognize that we're not only a good market, but a fast-growing one."

That said, however, some sticking points still remain. Consider, for instance, one Charlotte, North Carolina, aerospace parts dealer who recently spoke with Entrepreneur's HomeOffice on condition of anonymity. "We don't feel it's a fair policy," says this homebased business owner, referring to the $1 extra fee that UPS charges for residential deliveries--whether they're made to businesses or consumers. "It's not fair to charge us more than businesses [in commercial locations]. It's discriminatory."

"Homebased businesses are located, for the most part, in less dense areas," counters Kristen Petrella of Atlanta-based UPS. "This poses problems for us--costs in gasoline, driver time, these all go up. Basically, it's just a much higher cost for us to serve homebased businesses." (For more information on delivery services, see "Best Buys")

Petrella maintains that homebased businesses continue to be very important to UPS. Much of corporate America undoubtedly shares this sentiment--after all, we're talking about nearly 20 million folks who are estimated to toil away at home. "We're getting people's attention," surmises Wohl. Even so, there's probably room for improvement. Let us know what you think. Fax us at (714) 755-4211 or e-mail hoffice@entrepreneurmag.com

Contact Sources

American Association of Home-Based Businesses, (800) 447-9710, http://www.aahb.org

Duston Jensen, (253) 591-5247, djensen@ci.tacoma.wa.us

Johnson & Co. Inc., 7960-B Soquel Dr., #226, Aptos, CA 95003, jjj@joandco.com

Kugler Communications, ekugler@aol.com

R.H. Wohl & Associates Inc./In Plain English, P.O. Box 3300, Gaithersburg, MD 20885, rwohl@inplainenglish.com

Slingshot Productions, P.O. Box 4700, West Hills, CA 91308

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