Monday, August 07, 2006

Seven Businesses Perfect for the Home

Yes, many businesses do follow the stereotypical evolution from corner of the living room to the corner office.

But there are many small businesses that, in fact, are better suited to the cozy confines of the home front. In this column, I'll specifically discuss seven businesses that are perfect for the work-at-home crowd.

Before I do that, however, you need to understand that are three specific criteria you need to evaluate before you decide to set up shop at home:

Client contact. This is perhaps the first issue to tackle in determining whether a business can reasonably remain and prosper at home, or whether it's better to move it elsewhere. Think carefully how much, if any, sort of client contact your business may bring about and, in turn, whether that contact may be suitable for a home office. Gauge how much "professionalism" — at least in the conventional sense of the term — your clients and customers demand. If that can be achieved adequately at home, perhaps through a separate entrance and special meeting room, fine. But for many businesses, the better solution is a separate office.

Branding. This is not to suggest that a professional persona can only be achieved outside of the house. Far from it. Rather, it depends more on how the people with whom you work have come to see you and your abilities. If, by chance, you're an attorney who does a first-class job of representing large companies but does so from the loft of a New England farmhouse, that reputation actually depends, in part, on keeping your office down on the farm. "It really all matters on the brand that you've built up," says Julian Lang, a professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. "No matter what you do for a living, staying at home can mean you've disdained all the trappings. It can be seen as quaint and neat."

People and products. No matter how professional you keep things at home, you need to understand that an eventual need for employees or space to store what you sell may force even the best organized home office to emigrate. So, if your product is largely intellectual or something that you can do by your lonesome, chances are better that you'll be able to stay at home. As Lang points out: "If you have too many employees or products stocked all over your house, you really don't have a house any more."

With those three broad considerations in mind, have a look at a quick list of businesses that, in fact, are better suited to a home office rather than an outside location, as well as some businesses that just won't cut it on the home front:

Home bodies

Architect: This could well be the ideal at-home business. Not only can you work pretty much by yourself, having prospective clients stop by actually sells your business. "I, for one, would never hire an architect without seeing what his or her own house looked like," says Lisa Kanarek, founder of Home Office "There, you see the proof is in the pudding."

Interior designer: The same dynamics as a home-based architect, only with an emphasis on how the home is decorated. "Does the designer have a beautiful home that's nicely decorated, or do you see paintings of dogs playing pool?" asks Kanarek.Home builders: Again, do you live in an eye-grabbing home or one fit for the cover of Hovel Monthly?

Cooking-related professions: If you write cookbooks or food reviews, it's better to have a full kitchen nearby rather than an old microwave down the hall with Velveeta stains that date from the Carter administration. "I know that the columnist Heloise works at home because she's always testing recipes," says Kanarek.

Caterer: This is actually more of a maybe. While proximity to cooking facilities is a major plus, certain jurisdictions mandate health licensure to prepare large quantities of food. Check with your city or county health department.

Computer professions: From Web designers to software engineers, computer work meshes beautifully with home offices. It's often solitary work, with no or modest product storage requirements. And, if Lang's observation about persona holds true, what better image than the counterculture computer genius ensconced at work at home?Service professionals: What I mean here are those businesses where most of the work is actually in other people's homes or businesses. This can range from cleaning services to home repair to carpentry work. The work done at home is mostly phone calls with clients, setting appointments and doing accounting and paperwork.

Office bound

Physicians: With apologies to Bill Cosby's television home-based doctor who waddled into his basement to perform pelvic exams, most doctors are far better taking their stethoscopes to an outside office. Necessary space, necessary medical equipment, not to mention the professional persona yet again.

Mental health pros: While the idea of a home office may seem comforting to persons seeking counseling, the issue of absolute privacy often nixes the idea, not only in terms of a solitary meeting room. Consider how your clients may feel walking into a home that the neighbors know houses a psychiatrist or some other therapist.

Businesses with sensitive records: Once more, this can depend. For instance, a CPA may run a thriving home-based practice. But give some consideration if you generate a pile of for-your-eyes-only material. "If you're an attorney, doctor or accountant, you don't want to give a party and have someone walk into your home office and see three years' worth of records on your desk," says Kanarek.

By Jeff Wuorio, an award-winning writer and columnist, and is the author of "The CNBC Guide to Money and Markets." For more information, check out his Web site:

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