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Balancing Work and Life: Running a Home-Based Business

Balancing Work and Life: Running a Home-Based Business (Small Business) | SmartMoney.com

By Colleen DeBaise
|Published: June 1, 2007

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Debbie Wiener started an interior-design firm out of her Silver Spring, Md., home eight years ago, and the breakdown in boundaries is now testing her limits. With two full-time employees and contractors in and out all day, finding private time just to get dressed has become difficult. Complicating matters are two sons, 11 and 15, who often come bounding in from school yelling, “Mom, guess what?” — especially distracting when she’s on the phone with a client. And now, space in her basement office is tight: With three business lines, “when everyone is talking at once, you can’t hear yourself think,” she says. “I literally went downstairs the other day and said, ‘That’s it — we’ve got to move out of here!'”

The challenges of a home office can sometimes supplant the bevy of reasons most entrepreneurs open one in the first place. Home-based business owners say the advantages are top-flight. There’s no commute. You can throw in laundry, walk the dog or take a nap at will. There’s usually no dress code, and you can spend more time with kids.

The drawbacks? It’s easy to get distracted, especially by household tasks or needy children or even relatives who don’t understand the “home office” concept and don’t get you’re truly working.

And for entrepreneurs who don’t have employees (or children or pets), working out of the home can be a lonely endeavor. Jeff Louderback, a home-based publicist in Orlando, says he gets up every morning, shaves and dresses professionally, and then heads to the office, which is the spare bedroom in his two-bedroom condo. While he’s happy to be free from office politics, he misses the camaraderie of co-workers. So he often takes his laptop to a local café “just to be around people,” he says. “I might not even talk to anyone, but just to hear the stir of human interaction, I just feel better.”

It’s important to come up with a set of rules and personal practices that make working from home an appealing proposition, experts say. For home-based entrepreneurs, “the day never stops — it goes into night,” says Lori Sokol, founder and publisher of Work Life Matters magazine in Hoboken, N.J. “The onus has landed on the shoulders of the entrepreneur to actually set time aside to take breaks, to have lunch, to just step away.” She often recommends that people who work from hope adopt a fitness schedule, as exercise is not only good for physical and mental health but it can be an effective way to get out of work mode. “Join a health club so that it forces you to leave the office,” she suggests.

Indeed, there’s a learning curve when you start a business from the home — and entrepreneurs who do so should give themselves at least two years to figure out how “to set boundaries and to create artificial distinctions when there really are none,” says Dawna I. Ballard, an associate professor at University of Texas at Austin, who specializes in time in the workplace.

She suggests that home-based business owners come up with a rigid schedule, and learn to draw lines when it comes to demands on their time. Parents with children at home, for instance, need to have an extra set of hands providing daycare, she says. Single people without children need to set a finite “end of day” (which for others can be marked when spouses or children arrive back home). And then all home-based business owners need to communicate to neighbors, friends and family members that working from home doesn’t mean you’re “eating candy and watching soap operas,” Ballard says.

Chris Russell, founder of job-posting site AllCountyJobs.com in Trumbull, Conn., says he often needs to remind his wife, who goes to an office for a 9-to-5 job, that he’s working, too. “Sometimes my wife will say to me, ‘Can you go to the dry cleaners for me? Can you start dinner early?'” he says. “It’s hard to say no.” For the most part, though, he enjoys the flexibility — and a recent incident in which he was stuck in traffic while en route to a client meeting reminded him that “commuting sucks.”

For Jeanne Cabral, a Columbus, Ohio, architect who’s been home-based for 23 years, it’s taken a long time to get it right. “I screwed up the first seven years,” she says. “I did everything wrong — and I changed because I realized my life wasn’t good.” For starters, she didn’t keep regular business hours, often working noon until midnight, which left her without a social life. She also made the mistake of using her home phone line (without caller ID) as her business line. A turning point came when she picked up the phone at 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday — and had to deal with a client who demanded that she fax something immediately. “That Monday morning I got a second number [for home], and I don’t give it to anybody,” she says.

Now, Cabral sticks to about a dozen rules she’s developed in recent years. She keeps regular hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday), and says so on her voicemail. She doesn’t answer the phone after 5 p.m. or on weekends. She has a dedicated business phone, toll-free number, a second rollover number and DSL. She keeps business-grade equipment such as a copier, large-format printer and five computers. She’s set up a conference area — one of two rooms in her house that she devotes to the office — to meet with clients. She keeps personal tasks to a minimum during work hours: “I don’t do my laundry,” she says. And she asks friends and families not to call during the day, or to keep it brief. It didn’t happen overnight, but running a home office “works out really well for me,” she says.

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