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Better Safe

Home alone? When you're working and living in the same place, you need to take home security seriously.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own., October 1999

It's no Fort Knox, but Jane Scheid's home office and its surrounding property provide plenty of protection-and peace of mind.

If the entry gate to Scheid's property doesn't dissuade unwelcome guests, then the alarm company's warning sign might. Lush foliage obstructs the glimpses of casual passersby, while allowing Scheid a clear view outside. At night, motion detectors guarantee that if someone creeps through the yard, the entire property and her office/cottage will be flooded with bright light.

When she's out of the office, Scheid draws the window blinds so people can't peer in at her equipment. When she's in the office, the deadbolt is often turned, and her cellular phone and a can of Mace are always close at hand.

Plus, Scheid has an added insurance "policy": Trip Moore, her husband-and his black belt in karate. He often checks in during the day and calls her when she's working late. "He'll call from the [main] house," she says, "even though it's just 30 feet away."

She may be running her marketing communications company, Jane Scheid Communications, from her home alone, yet she rarely feels unsafe. "Maybe I'm just a paranoid person," Scheid says. "But I take these precautions, and I haven't had anything alarming happen to me yet."

Scheid isn't paranoid-she's just plain smart, says Bob Worthy, president of alarm company Secur Technologies, and president of the Alarm Association of Florida. "[Homebased] business owners let some of these things go by the wayside. They think they just can't afford it. But you can't ignore safety and protection."

Worthy recommends alarm systems with handheld panic or duress buttons, fire extinguishers for the home and home office, even fireproof safes for backup data files. Duplicates of important documents or files also should be kept off-site, in case a fire destroys the originals. In fact, for both personal security and property protection, you must assess your vulnerabilities and set up defenses . . . today. We'll show you how.

Survey The Landscape

Homebased entrepreneurs and telecommuters often work in solitude surrounded by expensive computer equipment, facing new clients with unknown intentions. If you work late hours, the telling glow of technology can attract unsavory characters . . . unless you take precautions.

When you survey the home office for areas in need of protection, Worthy recommends you start outside and work your way in, asking yourself: Is the property open and clear, and is it well lit at night to dissuade prowlers? If the home has an alarm, is each entrance wired-as opposed to just the front and rear doors? With a modern alarm system, it's possible to arm just the home office's zone, especially if it has a dedicated entrance from the outside. This allows you or your family members to enter the home freely from other entrances while keeping the home office secure.

The first sign greeting visitors and passersby to Michael Dziak's home office is that of his alarm company. Other than that, there's little indication the president of InteleWorks Inc. works from home. "I operate on a stealth basis," says the telework consultant, whose own neighbors don't even know he runs a homebased business.

Dziak prefers it that way. In fact, first impressions go a long way in securing his home office, Dziak says. If people do manage to look through the thorny holly bushes that grow outside his ground-floor windows, they'll notice Dziak has removed the cover to one of his computers (can't resell a computer without the shell, he surmises). They'll also see the sign on his 17-inch monitor boasting "Monitor Defective."

"It's a lot easier to prevent theft than to try to recover after it's occurred," he says. "It's my contention that the possibility is always there . . . and everyone should have a contingency plan in place." Dziak backs up computer data daily between his desktop computers and his laptop; a monthly backup on tape is stored in a remote location of his home.

Rhonda Taylor, owner of The Confident Resume, situated her home office in a second-floor bedroom so she and her equipment would be hidden from plain view. But she takes additional precautions nonetheless.

Outside, no signage tells of her business, and her community's electronic gates keep would-be prowlers from cruising the neighborhood, she says. She gave up her P.O. box as an inconvenience, and instead receives all business checks through direct deposit "to eliminate 'business-looking' checks in the mail," she says.

While Taylor actively markets her business, only her family and closest friends know she works from home. No customers visit and all correspondence is done via phone, e-mail, snail mail and fax. None of her five e-mail accounts bears any personal contact info that could steer someone back to her office.

And while Taylor works alone, she's rarely by herself. "My husband comes home for lunch every day to check on me. And since his schedule is a bit hectic, it's never at the same time," she says. "Plus, we have a big dog."

Like Taylor, April Spring works from an office on the second floor of her home. From there, she can survey her yard and walkway. That way, the president of Spring & Associates, an investor relations and corporate administration firm, can see whether a knock at the door is a delivery person, a friend-or a stranger. Her neighbor knows Spring works from home and would notice if something unusual happened.

Spring uses Caller ID to screen incoming calls and, as part of her "security blanket," keeps her combination cellular phone/pager/ two-way radio nearby. With the touch of the radio's button, she's immediately connected with her husband, Alex Emmermann, or his 50-person group at Motorola.

Although Spring's home has a back room ideal for a home office, she opted for the peace of mind of the upstairs bedroom. "I felt so unsafe [in the back room], like I was waiting for someone to come. I want to be in the front [of the house] and up high so I can look down and see everything," she says. "I take security very seriously. Precautions give me peace of mind and allow me to concentrate on my work."

Mail, Insurance And Other Matters

Between the yard and the windows of Carmen Hiers' home is a thick hedge edging the entire perimeter of the structure. Other homebased entrepreneurs plant thorny vines or plants beneath windows to prevent access from outside.

While the hedge helps keep the uninvited away, truth be told, Hiers rarely invites anyone to her home office. Instead, the marketing communications specialist and owner of The Solmar Group Inc. prefers the safest route-working from the offices of clients, such as Discovery Networks Latin America/Iberia or ad.vice, a television and marketing consultancy.

Hiers also has an account at a local Mail Boxes Etc. She receives all mail and parcels there, and the postal company's address replaces her home address on all letterhead. Even with new U.S. Postal Service regulations requiring that PMB (for "private mailbox") be used to denote use of a private facility, Hiers plans to continue using her postal box.

Her defense mechanisms serve multiple purposes. "I've always made it a practice not to meet clients at home-not only because people tend not to take you as seriously, but also to avoid any complications associated with having people I don't know very well know I live by myself," she says. "As it is, I don't feel comfortable having delivery people figure out that I'm a woman living alone."

Linda Greck chose another route for her mailing address. Instead of redirecting her mail to a local mailing service, Greck instead put "Suite 100" on stationery for MediaMatters, her public relations firm. Greck wasn't as concerned about hiding her residence as she was about presenting a professional image for her limited client base.

It's just another insurance policy, like the business rider Greck added to her homeowners' policy to cover her home-office equipment-items she says are typically not covered by traditional homeowners' or renters' property or personal liability policies. "I don't want a Mail Boxes Etc. address in case that owner decides to close or relocate," she says. "The bottom line is that my home is where I conduct business. So my office becomes 'Suite 100' at my home address."

Working With Strangers

Just because you work alone doesn't mean you have to feel vulnerable. Use these tips to build your sense of security, especially when dealing with newcomers:

  • Check the ID of any unknown visitor before opening the door. If the stranger can't present an ID, call his or her employer. If it's a courier and you haven't seen him before, have him leave the parcel on the doorstep.
  • Schedule first-time-and possibly follow-up-meetings off-site at a neutral location, such as a restaurant, coffee shop, executive suite or local library. That gives you time to get a feel for clients' and vendors' characters. If you never quite get the right vibe, but don't necessarily feel threatened, just say your office is not set up to handle meetings.
  • If you must meet on-site with clients, walk them directly to your office and try to limit client access to your home's living areas.
  • If you feel unsure about a client, ask a neighbor or other at-home worker to drop in during the visit to "deliver a proposal you've been working on." Or schedule visits when an adult family member, an employee or intern is in the home. You can also tell the client someone will be stopping by-even if no one really is.
  • Don't record an answering machine greeting that reveals travel plans or extended periods away from the office. Call clients or vendors before you leave and personally tell them you'll be away.
  • If you'll be out of the office for a while, use call forwarding to transfer incoming calls to an associate or employee who can take messages or handle some client requests. Or give a friend your access code, so he or she can check your messages and respond to important calls.
  • Listen to your gut. If someone makes you uneasy after an initial meeting, hold subsequent meetings in public areas or decline to work with that person. Your uneasiness could hinder your ability to work professionally-resulting in bad workmanship and decreased productivity.

A Few Quick Tips

A home office can be enticing to outsiders. Set up the office to prevent or prepare for unforeseen circumstances.

  • Take security seriously. If your office is in a dedicated room, install a deadbolt on the office door to protect expensive office equipment in case someone breaks into your home. If you have clients visiting, keep a can of Mace, a personal audible alarm or the handheld panic button for your alarm system nearby. Also buy a fire extinguisher for the office.
  • Get P.O.'d. Your business card is usually no place for your home address. Costing about $25 every six months, a P.O. box is an ideal business address to put on literature. Since many shipping services won't deliver to P.O. boxes, consider using the address of a local pack-and-ship storefront or an executive suite for your stationery. Just remember that recent postal service regulations require the PMB (private mailbox) label be used to denote such services, potentially hindering your professional appearance.
  • Make your space official. When writing your address or ordering a rubber stamp for putting your return address on letters and other correspondence, call Apt. B-104, for example, "Suite" or "No." B-104. Or add "Suite 100" to your home address. It appears more like a business than a residential address.
  • Get alarmed. Protect your equipment and property with an alarm system, possibly with a handheld panic button and a keypad in the home office itself. Test it regularly, and change the batteries every three years-more frequently, if needed.
  • Plant thorny bushes or thick hedges. Place them outside every window around the home, especially outside the home office. Spanish bayonets, cacti, bougainvillea and other prickly plants will impede access, and as they grow, they'll obscure the view from the outside.
  • Dim the computer screen or lower the shades when you're out of the office-especially at night. A monitor glowing from a home office advertises that the home has a computer and hints at other expensive office hardware on the premises. Eliminate the enticement by hiding the equipment from view.
  • Prepare the office for travel. When traveling for a few days or longer, back up important data files, and hide those diskettes somewhere safe. Then treat your home office just as you should the rest of your home. Turn on a few lights; put others on automatic timers. Lock all the windows and doors to the outside, and lock the door from the office to the house. Turn off the automatic garage door opener and set the alarm.
  • Get covered. Homebased businesses need extra insurance coverage. Call your carrier and explain your setup. You might need a business rider to cover equipment related to the business and another to increase liability protection for customers, clients or vendors who visit your home office. The company and its vehicles should also be rated correctly to ensure the best rate and maximum savings.

Contact Sources

The Confident Resume, (703) 802-6002

InteleWorks Inc.,

Jane Scheid Communications, (561) 533-7483

MediaMatters, (954) 915-9515,

Secur Technologies Inc., (800) 899-2099

The Solmar Group Inc., 13615 S. Dixie Highway, #340, Miami, FL 33176

Spring & Associates,,