Community Unity

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This story appears in the August 1998 issue of Subscribe »

If the thing you like least about working at home is the loneliness of a solitary office, check out the online world of virtual communities.

Whether you call them telecommunities or virtual worlds, their focus remains the same: to foster social interaction between groups of people based on shared interests. Some sites are text-based only (where online personas "talk" via the keyboard); others include graphic and audio elements.

Today's telecommunities are much more than your basic chat room, where anonymous users simply converse. Virtual com-munities have strong identity models, security systems and rules of order, not to mention access to the networking tools needed to keep track of important contacts, events, activities and bulletin board notices.

"One of the things [virtual communities] can do for entrepreneurs is keep them in touch with a professional network," says Christina Allen of Electric Communities Inc., a Cupertino, California, developer of virtual world technologies.

For instance, you can create your own space in the virtual world--to be visited only by friends and colleagues to whom you give the password. And to curb isolation, you can keep it on your desktop throughout the day as you work on other projects "and have casual conversations, giving you the sense of being in an office environment where you're running into colleagues," Allen says. You can even log on to happenings in and around the virtual community, such as online chats.

Or you can use your space to answer customer questions--scan in a photo of a product and refer to it as you talk on the phone. And if you, like most homebased entrepreneurs, can't afford to fly all over the nation to make sales calls, try giving live sales presentations on the Web that potential customers can access.

Experts say these communities will only grow in popularity--especially with the current trend toward securing user loyalty. Electric Communities, for example, features a personal identity model; participants use the same identity in each interaction, thus building a reputation over time within the virtual world. Says Allen, "People are starting to [recognize] the social and commercial value of having synchronous communication."

Some of the more popular Web-based virtual communities are at ,a href=http:/>http:/,,, and

John W. Verity writes the "Currents" column for Entrepreneur's HomeOffice.

Lemon Law

By Debra Phillips

It's the same old story: Homebased entrepreneur sets up shop, runs afoul of local authorities and gets shut down. Nothing new here, right? Only this time--in a twist worthy of a "Saturday Night Live" skit--the entrepreneur in question is no misguided adult, but rather a teenager with a lemonade stand.

We kid you not. Fifteen-year-old Nathan Brittingham of Dale, Indiana, didn't count on mixing up anything other than cool refreshments when he opened for business last summer. Yet--and this is where fact becomes stranger than fiction--the local health department soon put the squeeze on the lemonade purveyor. (Local authorities could not be reached for comment.)

"I got this letter in the mail that said he had to cease operation immediately," recalls Nathan's mother, Pat, who had purchased a peddler's permit for her son. "I couldn't believe it. It was stupid." Echoes Nathan, "I was mad."

As Pat tells it, Nathan's stand--which was outfitted with flashing lights and music to boot--was forced to close because of its lack of restroom facilities. "[I was told that Nathan] had been turned in by another food establishment owner," Pat says.

What? So much of the Brittinghams' brush with bureaucracy borders on the ridiculous that it's no surprise the case has generated considerable attention. One local radio station even printed T-shirts as a show of support for the kid with indisputably great-tasting lemonade.

Will this very same lemonade be sold again this summer? When asked whether he intends to reopen for business--even if it's to accept "donations" for lemonade in lieu of actual sales--Nathan merely responds, "Maybe." Still, it must be hard not to let this experience leave a bitter taste in their mouths. "Kids all over have lemonade stands," Pat points out. "What is this world coming to?"

Big-Time Storage

By G. David Doran

Homebased business owners can now use the same logistics, warehousing and distribution system as larger companies such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and Estée Lauder Cosmetics. Transportation, distribution and logistic services company Associated Global Systems (AGS), based in New Hyde Park, New York, gives businesses of any size a cost-effective alternative to leasing warehouses, hiring the workers to run them, and setting up a sophisticated logistics system to monitor inventory.

Associated Global's Corporate Distribution Management program allows businesses to store their goods at one or more of the company's 400 warehouses and helps create a routing guide to determine the most efficient and least costly method of shipment from the warehouse to a final destination, even if it's overseas. Depending on the level of service necessary, AGS will either make the delivery itself or arrange to use another carrier of the customer's choice. The company handles all the relevant inventory and distribution paperwork and provides "pick and pack" services as well as any other preparation the shipment requires.

For high-tech businesses, AGS offers its PartStock program. The company has a network of 150 part depots that maintains computerized inventory records that a client business can access at any time. AGS can also utilize its worldwide distribution network to fulfill many types of customer service contracts.

Both the Corporate Distribution Management and PartStock programs are completely customizable so customers can choose to use any or all of the company's services. AGS has a wide variety of other value-added programs, including Retail Merchandising Services, which specializes in installing and maintaining point-of-sale displays in retail stores and Logistics Support Services, where AGS employees will install, repair or replace high-tech equipment on behalf of the client company.

Talk Show: The Chair From Hell

By John W. Verity

All I wanted, all I needed, was a decent chair--a good, solid chair--in which I might sit comfortably and do my work at the computer. But what I got . . . well, it was just one big pain in the you-know-what.

I'd been working from home for about a year when I decided to treat myself to a better chair. Friends called me crazy, but I decided to go the mail order route. A folksy catalog offered about 25 "task chairs" at seemingly reasonable prices; I went for a $300 model that supposedly tilted and adjusted this way and that, was "deliverable in three days," and came with a money-back guarantee. Most alluring of all, the catalog touted this "ergonomic, orthopedic" wonder as "one of the 10 best chairs in the world," according to the company president--a man who'd "testified before Congress" about spines and chair design.

I thought it only slightly suspicious that such an expert as this was left unnamed. But three weeks and several phone calls later when my chair finally arrived, I understood perfectly his desire for anonymity. This, I now realized, was The Chair from Hell.

The assembly instructions, for instance, arrived in the form of a one-page, 10th generation photocopy that actually referred to an entirely different product. It took a long half-hour and a call to the product's Midwest manufacturer for me and my girlfriend to get my chair's many pieces together. One look, though, and we could see that the whole thing was misaligned, from its miserably crooked back panel to its visibly lopsided seat. Sitting on this chair was painful after barely a minute.

That night, I faxed Dealer X a long letter explaining my disappointment. I got no response, and when I called two days later, some executive, feigning surprise, mumbled something about how many of these items they've sold and how "nobody ever complained before." There was no offer of a new or better chair, no attempt whatsoever to keep me as a customer. Even my refund arrived two weeks late.

Since then, I've had little time to shop for another chair beyond scanning the Web. There, I've learned a good deal about the office furniture business: The maker of my chair, for instance, went bankrupt last year. What's more, I discovered a huge marketplace dealing in generic, no-name office furniture. Manufacturers and downsized corporations sell chairs and desks in bulk to various dealers who refurbish them as needed and relabel them. Which means, of course, that the chair I first saw in that catalog has never really existed. The dealer just fills orders with any chair he can find that more or less matches the description in the catalog and earns the company a good profit.

Perhaps there's nothing wrong with all this. Perhaps I shouldn't have shopped by phone for something as important as an office chair. In the end, all I can offer is this one piece of advice: Try before you buy. Your back, your butt and your brain will thank you.

Is there something about homebased business life you'd like to get off your chest? We'll gladly hand you the microphone. Send your rants and raves to "Talk Show," c/o Entrepreneur's HomeOffice, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614; fax us at (714) 755-4211, attention: "Talk Show;" or e-mail us at

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