Mind Your Own Business: Work at Home

Millions of people now operate home-based businesses or work for an employer from home, so why not you?

by David Von Hatten on November 1, 2003 - 1:04pm

In 1998, I began tinkering with the notion of becoming my own boss. I'd put in my time, over 10 years, at a variety of advertising agencies as a full-time copywriter. I wondered if it was time for me to go it alone.

David Von Hatten
David Von Hatten

Besides letting you avoid bad weather and the stresses of commuting, working at home allows you to suit your workday to your own pace. For someone with a neuromuscular disease, like my spinal muscular atrophy, this plan offers a way to adapt to fluctuating energy levels and other ups and downs.

After giving it plenty of thought, doing my homework and receiving support from family and friends, I decided to give it a try. It worked.

But not everyone is suited for working at home. There are a few things to consider.

Do you have what it takes to run a business? Thats the first question you should ask yourself. You don't want to invest a lot of time and money going down an uncertain and sometimes scary path unless you're reasonably convinced you can pull it off.

Here are some other questions you should consider:

  • Do you have a skill that's marketable?
  • Are you a self-starter?
  • Can you handle responsibility?
  • What are your organizational skills like?
  • Do you have the discipline to make your business a success?
  • Can you make tough decisions?
  • Do you have the energy to stick with it?
  • Do you have a few months worth of income set aside to keep you afloat?

While these questions may be difficult to answer, they may give you an honest indication of your potential success in running a home-based business.

Skills assessment

Ask yourself, "What do you enjoy doing?"

For me, this was a given: I enjoyed writing advertising and I had ample experience. Still, the Austin, Texas, job market would have to support me, yet another freelance writer.

I decided I'd better do my homework while I was still employed. This meant arranging meetings and showing my portfolio to agencies, large and small. The feedback I received was positive. I was even able to secure projects before I left my full-time job.

That was four years ago, and I'm still in business. To market my services I initially continued to meet with ad agencies, but eventually created a Web site that features my work (www.writebrainworks.com). Over the years I've added magazine writing and digital video editing to my roster of services — two more skills I enjoy.

Is there a market for one or more of your skills? If you live in a college town, for instance, and you're a good typist, consider setting up your own typing service. Chances are you already have a computer and printer. To market your service, simply create index cards touting your skills and fees, and post them around college campuses. Or take out a small ad in your local college newspaper. I had a typing service when I was in college, and the results were pleasing.

Do you enjoy talking to people? Do you have a good phone voice? Your community may have call center businesses. These jobs entail working with the company's customers providing telemarketing, sales or service support.

What's more, some companies are open to allowing employees to "office" from home. It's called telecommuting, or teleworking. Studies show that telecommuting creates higher employee productivity, reduced turnover, lower operational expenses, less congested roads and cleaner air. In 1995 there were 4 million teleworkers in the United States. According to Gartner Group, that number is now estimated to be 137 million worldwide.

Getting ideas for creating your own businesses isn't necessarily a difficult task. Is there a particular industry in your community that drives the economy? Take a good look around, or look on the Web, and figure out where you might fit in.

But be wary of the many "get rich quick" schemes you'll see on the Internet or in classified ads. Owning your own Internet shopping mall may promise 50 percent commissions and incredible six-figure earnings potential as long as you buy the company's home-business starter kit. If these schemes were legitimate, wouldn't we all be exceedingly wealthy by now? Be realistic about these offers and be particularly wary of arrangements that require an investment from you up front. Visit www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs for some guidelines on how to evaluate work-at-home offers.

In developing a business idea, put your trust in local colleagues and business people you know, rather than in strangers promising the world.

To give you a better idea of what working at home is like I interviewed a handful of people who know firsthand.

People who are minding their own businesses

Leslie Krongold
Leslie Krongold

A little over two years ago, Leslie Krongold worked for a publisher in the San Francisco Bay area. Having to face a two-and-a-half-to-four-hour commute each day, however, grew tiring for Krongold, who has myotonic dystrophy.

Fortunately, her employer allowed her to telecommute two to three days a week. While Krongold only had to pay for Internet service, her employer set up a workspace at home with a laptop computer and modem.

But not all employers are flexible when it comes to telecommuting. More recently, Krongold took a job with the University of California, San Francisco, as an instructional designer. There she developed online courses for medical students and physicians. Because her job description required more time in front of a computer and less interaction with clients, Krongold asked if she could telecommute. Her request was denied. That's when she made up her mind to start her own business.

Krongold now works as an instructional designer and video producer. The company she started, Whatever Productions, focuses on the design and development of educational and training materials Web-based, CD-ROM, videotape or DVD, or print. To learn more about her work and see her portfolio, visit www.WhateverProductions.net.

Now that she's on her own, Krongold has the flexibility of choosing her own schedule according to how she feels physically. To help in that regard Krongold, who is ambulatory, uses an Aeron chair — one of the most ergonomic, best-designed seating systems available. She also uses a wireless mouse and an ergonomic Banana Board keyboard tray since she's at the computer for long periods at a time.

One of the best things Krongold likes about running her business is that she can now really focus on her projects without the worry of a mounting workload. "I really enjoy sinking my teeth into something and giving it my all," she says.

There are some disadvantages to working at home, too. For Krongold and many self-employed business owners, not having a steady paycheck is one of the biggest drawbacks. To protect herself Krongold markets her business relentlessly to existing and potential clients. It's simply a reality of doing business.

Still she makes time to create balance in her life. "It's good to take breaks — get the mail, play with the cats or take a peek outside if it's a sunny day," Krongold says.

Sharon Denson
Sharon Denson

Sharon Denson of West Hartford, Conn., has also enjoyed the advantages of working from home since 1992. She began doing so to spend more time with her children.

One of her first work-at-home positions was as a marketing manager for LexisNexis, a company that provides authoritative legal, news, public records and business information in online, print or CD-ROM formats. "The great advantage of working at home," Denson says, "was that as long as I completed my assignments on time, it didn't matter when I did them."

Currently Denson works from home as an outside salesperson for Thomson West, a legal publisher, selling an online legal research system and law books to attorneys. Denson says that many people in similar industries, especially sales or marketing, have the opportunity to work from home.

Her employer provided her with a laptop computer, a combo fax-printer-scanner, and, taking her myasthenia gravis into consideration, a 3M ergonomic mouse so that her hand doesn't tremble or grow tired while working. She strongly recommends an ergonomic office — the proper desk, chair and keyboard height to avoid body aches and pains.

For Denson, the biggest advantage of working at home is also the biggest drawback: her workday's flexibility. While she takes time out to do the things she enjoys doing, she sometimes finds herself working beyond typical office hours since she really never leaves the office. When she does leave her office to meet with clients, she has reliable transportation; a modified minivan and a power wheelchair get her where she needs to go each day. Also, client contact, in Denson's experience, is crucial to her workday. Otherwise it can get lonely at the office, she says.

An admitted self-starter, Denson says working at home isn't for everyone.

"Anyone who wants to get involved in working for a company at home or creating a home-based business must be motivated," she says. "No one will force you to go to your home office. You have to know why you want to work." Motivation runs deep with Denson, who also attends law school in the evenings.

Monica German of Sioux Falls, S.D., likes working from home so much she has two professions: freelance medical transcription and teaching piano. Having two jobs serves her well. "I like being able to work on transcription when I have a break from my piano students," German says.

For her transcription work, German must have the right equipment. For that the South Dakota Department of Rehabilitation provided her with a computer-printer-hardware setup. She pays only for her phone line.

German, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, needed just the right-sized keyboard, due to her movement limitations. For that she found the DataLux keyboard which measures in at 8-by-11-inches. She also uses a Kensington Expert Mouse, which works by moving a ball in a stationary holder.

German decided to work from home because of the conveniences it brings her. Not having to leave home to go to work, especially during inclement weather, is particularly nice. She got the word out about teaching piano lessons via a grassroots effort word of mouth and posting her name on a list at a local music store. Her transcription service took off simply by knowing people who needed her services.

Curt Vose
Curt Vose

For German there are many advantages of working from home. While she enjoys the flexibility, she also likes not having to endure the rigors of office politics, background noise from office mates or having a dress code. She can also pace herself according to how she's feeling. But the disadvantages must be duly noted.

"The biggest drawback of working from home is that I don't have any health insurance," German says. Add to that no sick days, no vacation days and no other typical office benefits one might expect.

One lesson German has learned since she began working at home years ago is that "self-discipline is a must. If you don't work, you don't get paid," she bluntly points out. German also notes that one must know how to communicate with people and know how to keep accurate accounting records. Though she sometimes finds herself taking on too much work, German tries to take time off to enjoy life.

Curt Vose worked for more than 16 years as a chef, but when complications arose from an SMA type 2 diagnosis, he was forced to retire in 1998. The Glen Falls, N.Y., resident had few other passions as great as cooking, but photography and writing came fairly close. He wondered if his photography skills were good enough to get his works published.

One day Vose decided to throw caution to the wind and sent some of his work to a local Adirondack newspaper, the Leader Herald, for consideration. Eventually the paper published his work and even gave him assignments. Now he also writes commentary for the paper. Encouraged by the response, he began knocking on other doors and received similar work in return.

Though Vose calls his venture into his home-based business purely accidental, he firmly believes you can't go into it blindly. "Do your research. Find out if [your business] will be profitable in your area," he says. If so, he thinks it's worth a try if you also have the initiative and the drive.

The downsides of having a home office are the distractions: the TV, phone and occasional visitors. But there are some positive aspects, too. Vose loves being able to make his own decisions and having creative control. For those perfect shots Vose relies on his 35mm camera, pro zoom lenses, tripods and beanbags to steady his hands, and an equal amount of inspiration.

Janie Arvin of Lafayette, Ind., began working at home as a transcriber when the hospital transcription department she worked with decided to consolidate departments with another hospital. She and her co-workers were given the option of moving to the new hospital or working at home.

Janie Arvin
Janie Arvin

"I had been thinking about it for a while," Arvin says, "and this just gave me the push to go home." For Arvin, who has spinal muscular atrophy, working at home is a much better choice. She was having health issues at the time.

Since the hospital approached Arvin with the idea of working at home, it was especially helpful in providing her with the supplies she needed. That included dictation equipment, a special computer keyboard and a unique flat mouse that doesn't require much arm movement to operate. She provides her own computer, modem and high-speed Internet service. While there are costs associated with working from home, Arvin doesn't have to pay for transportation to and from work, or the expense of eating out every day.

Arvin enjoys starting and ending her workday earlier since she no longer has to wait for a ride to or from work. Her work environment is much more comfortable, too. Theres no noise to distract her. If she doesn't like her office temperature, she simply changes it. Bathroom and lunch breaks are more to her liking, too, with attendants ready to help Arvin at home if and when she needs them.

About working at home Arvin has some sage words of advice. "You have to be motivated and keep to a schedule just like at work, or else you'll just put stuff off." Arvin considers herself a self-starter, but feels that working at home isn't for everyone. For her it's a natural fit.

"Now I wonder why I didn't do it sooner," she says.

If you decide to open a home-based business or telecommute for an employer, it might affect your Supplemental Security Income, depending on how much other income you have. In most cases, the more you earn, the less your SSI check will be.

But your SSI check may stop altogether. The amount of monthly income you can earn while still receiving SSI depends on where you live. Some states allow you to earn more income than others. If your SSI checks stop, you may be able to keep your Medicaid coverage.

For more information about these rules, contact Social Security to ask for the booklet, "Working While Disabled... How We Can Help" (Publication No. 05-10095). Or visit www.ssa.gov/pubs/10095.html.

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