Better Safe

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

By Jeffery D. Zbar

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

HomeOfficeMag.com, 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 solitudesurrounded by expensive computer equipment, facing new clients withunknown intentions. If you work late hours, the telling glow oftechnology can attract unsavory characters . . . unless you takeprecautions.

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

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

Dziak prefers it that way. In fact, first impressions go a longway in securing his home office, Dziak says. If people do manage tolook through the thorny holly bushes that grow outside hisground-floor windows, they'll notice Dziak has removed thecover to one of his computers (can't resell a computer withoutthe shell, he surmises). They'll also see the sign on his17-inch monitor boasting "Monitor Defective."

"It's a lot easier to prevent theft than to try torecover after it's occurred," he says. "It's mycontention that the possibility is always there . . . and everyoneshould have a contingency plan in place." Dziak backs upcomputer data daily between his desktop computers and his laptop; amonthly backup on tape is stored in a remote location of hishome.

Rhonda Taylor, owner of The Confident Resume, situated her homeoffice in a second-floor bedroom so she and her equipment would behidden from plain view. But she takes additional precautionsnonetheless.

Outside, no signage tells of her business, and hercommunity's electronic gates keep would-be prowlers fromcruising the neighborhood, she says. She gave up her P.O. box as aninconvenience, and instead receives all business checks throughdirect deposit "to eliminate 'business-looking' checksin the mail," she says.

While Taylor actively markets her business, only her family andclosest friends know she works from home. No customers visit andall correspondence is done via phone, e-mail, snail mail and fax.None of her five e-mail accounts bears any personal contact infothat 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. Andsince his schedule is a bit hectic, it's never at the sametime," she says. "Plus, we have a big dog."

Like Taylor, April Spring works from an office on the secondfloor of her home. From there, she can survey her yard and walkway.That way, the president of Spring & Associates, an investorrelations and corporate administration firm, can see whether aknock at the door is a delivery person, a friend-or a stranger. Herneighbor knows Spring works from home and would notice if somethingunusual happened.

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

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

Mail, Insurance And Other Matters

Between the yard and the windows of Carmen Hiers' home is athick hedge edging the entire perimeter of the structure. Otherhomebased entrepreneurs plant thorny vines or plants beneathwindows 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, themarketing communications specialist and owner of The Solmar GroupInc. prefers the safest route-working from the offices of clients,such as Discovery Networks Latin America/Iberia or ad.vice, atelevision and marketing consultancy.

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

Her defense mechanisms serve multiple purposes. "I'vealways made it a practice not to meet clients at home-not onlybecause people tend not to take you as seriously, but also to avoidany complications associated with having people I don't knowvery well know I live by myself," she says. "As it is, Idon't feel comfortable having delivery people figure out thatI'm a woman living alone."

Linda Greck chose another route for her mailing address. Insteadof redirecting her mail to a local mailing service, Greck insteadput "Suite 100" on stationery for MediaMatters, herpublic relations firm. Greck wasn't as concerned about hidingher residence as she was about presenting a professional image forher limited client base.

It's just another insurance policy, like the business riderGreck added to her homeowners' policy to cover her home-officeequipment-items she says are typically not covered by traditionalhomeowners' or renters' property or personal liabilitypolicies. "I don't want a Mail Boxes Etc. address in casethat owner decides to close or relocate," she says. "Thebottom line is that my home is where I conduct business. So myoffice becomes 'Suite 100' at my home address."

Working With Strangers

Just because you work alone doesn't mean you have to feelvulnerable. 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. Ifthe stranger can't present an ID, call his or her employer. Ifit's a courier and you haven't seen him before, have himleave the parcel on the doorstep.
  • Schedule first-time-and possibly follow-up-meetings off-site ata neutral location, such as a restaurant, coffee shop, executivesuite or local library. That gives you time to get a feel forclients' and vendors' characters. If you never quite getthe right vibe, but don't necessarily feel threatened, just sayyour office is not set up to handle meetings.
  • If you must meet on-site with clients, walk them directly toyour office and try to limit client access to your home'sliving areas.
  • If you feel unsure about a client, ask a neighbor or otherat-home worker to drop in during the visit to "deliver aproposal you've been working on." Or schedule visits whenan adult family member, an employee or intern is in the home. Youcan also tell the client someone will be stopping by-even if no onereally is.
  • Don't record an answering machine greeting that revealstravel plans or extended periods away from the office. Call clientsor vendors before you leave and personally tell them you'll beaway.
  • If you'll be out of the office for a while, use callforwarding to transfer incoming calls to an associate or employeewho can take messages or handle some client requests. Or give afriend your access code, so he or she can check your messages andrespond to important calls.
  • Listen to your gut. If someone makes you uneasy after aninitial meeting, hold subsequent meetings in public areas ordecline to work with that person. Your uneasiness could hinder yourability to work professionally-resulting in bad workmanship anddecreased productivity.

A Few Quick Tips

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

  • Take security seriously. If your office is in adedicated room, install a deadbolt on the office door to protectexpensive office equipment in case someone breaks into your home.If you have clients visiting, keep a can of Mace, a personalaudible alarm or the handheld panic button for your alarm systemnearby. Also buy a fire extinguisher for the office.
  • Get P.O.'d. Your business card is usually no placefor your home address. Costing about $25 every six months, a P.O.box is an ideal business address to put on literature. Since manyshipping services won't deliver to P.O. boxes, consider usingthe address of a local pack-and-ship storefront or an executivesuite for your stationery. Just remember that recent postal serviceregulations require the PMB (private mailbox) label be used todenote such services, potentially hindering your professionalappearance.
  • Make your space official. When writing your address orordering a rubber stamp for putting your return address on lettersand other correspondence, call Apt. B-104, for example,"Suite" or "No." B-104. Or add "Suite100" to your home address. It appears more like a businessthan a residential address.
  • Get alarmed. Protect your equipment and property with analarm system, possibly with a handheld panic button and a keypad inthe home office itself. Test it regularly, and change the batteriesevery three years-more frequently, if needed.
  • Plant thorny bushes or thick hedges. Place them outsideevery window around the home, especially outside the home office.Spanish bayonets, cacti, bougainvillea and other prickly plantswill impede access, and as they grow, they'll obscure the viewfrom the outside.
  • Dim the computer screen or lower the shades when you'reout of the office-especially at night. A monitor glowing from ahome office advertises that the home has a computer and hints atother expensive office hardware on the premises. Eliminate theenticement by hiding the equipment from view.
  • Prepare the office for travel. When traveling for a fewdays or longer, back up important data files, and hide thosediskettes somewhere safe. Then treat your home office just as youshould the rest of your home. Turn on a few lights; put others onautomatic timers. Lock all the windows and doors to the outside,and lock the door from the office to the house. Turn off theautomatic garage door opener and set the alarm.
  • Get covered. Homebased businesses need extra insurancecoverage. Call your carrier and explain your setup. You might needa business rider to cover equipment related to the business andanother to increase liability protection for customers, clients orvendors who visit your home office. The company and its vehiclesshould also be rated correctly to ensure the best rate and maximumsavings.

Contact Sources

The Confident Resume, (703) 802-6002

InteleWorks Inc., priority@inteleworks.com

Jane Scheid Communications, (561) 533-7483

MediaMatters, (954) 915-9515, lagreckpr@aol.com

Secur Technologies Inc., (800) 899-2099

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

Spring & Associates, april@springir.com, www.springir.com

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