Originally published in Business Digest, September 1998

Home Work

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Caution! If you've ever fantasized about chucking it all and starting a business from your spare room, be warned that what you are about to read has the potential to create a yearning for the other side of the fence that may prove dangerous to your employment health.

Still, there's something to be said for the vision of padding out of the bedroom on a 40- below-zero morning, in your bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, pouring a steaming cup of coffee and heading to your office down the hall. That's what Dave Schaefer does many mornings. But before you sign up, listen to what he told a lawyer who once came in to do practice interviewing with him. "The lawyer said, 'Boy, I envy how you live.' And I said, 'Think about it. I'm your worst nightmare. I have to wake up and invent my own destiny every morning.' "

Dave Schaefer
In "Surefire Strategies: Growing Your Home-Based Business," Dave Schaefer shares what he's learned through several years of working from his Burlington home. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

In his 14 years of working on his own, six of those from his home, Schaefer has amassed a bag of tricks and techniques, many of which he learned the hard way. And now, he's put them into a book that's just been released called "Surefire Strategies: Growing Your Home- Based Business" ($16.95, Upstart Publishing Co., Chicago).

Schaefer is a guy who has done a lot of things over his lifetime. But at each crossroads, he seems to have had an objective, or at least a reason to make the choices he did. Now, sometimes, people can create that appearance through hindsight and revisionist history, but that wouldn't be Schaefer's style. He has a sharply honed sense of humor that he aims at himself as often as not, and a way of calling things what they are.

A Wisconsin native, he was born in Manitowoc and grew up in Neenah, a papermill town. His father was a Lutheran minister, his mother taught Norwegian Rosemaling (painting). Following graduation from the University of Wisconsin Journalism School in 1959, he went to work for the Appleton, Wis., Post Crescent. After a six-month's stint in the Army Reserve -- "When the Berlin wall went up, all my friends were activated, and I got out," he quips -- Schaefer returned to the Post Crescent for a while, but soon decided he wanted to get out of his own backyard. Responding to an ad in Editor & Publisher magazine, he came to Vermont in 1961 as a reporter for The Burlington Free Press. Within a month, he went back to Wisconsin, got married and returned to Vermont with his bride.

Schaefer worked for the Free Press until 1968, when Ralph Deslauriers built Bolton Valley Resort, and hired Schaefer as the resort's "first advertising and public relations guy." He smiles sadly as he recalls a more recent visit with Deslauriers, who filed for bankruptcy last year. "I went up and helped him go Chapter 11, and it was almost 30 years later. He had a live TV crew coming up and he wanted to sit around and talk about it."

After a couple of years at Bolton, Schaefer received a call from IBM. "They were looking for an editor for their internal employee newsletter," he says, "and I had a young family and needed security more than the ski business could provide." He accepted the job and stayed at IBM for 11 years (with six months off in 1974 to be a speechwriter for Pat Leahy's campaign), ultimately becoming manager of community relations, reporting to the general manager. He might be there today had not IBM's corporate policy required that certain employees do the "headquarters experience." At that time, only about 16 sites had people doing what Schaefer did. "They called us tree huggers," he says, laughing. "We tended to want to stay where we were. But IBM wanted me to move to White Plains, and I was not going to have any choice. So I left IBM and went to work for Garden Way."

Schaefer started with a part of Garden Way then called Gardens For All, which has evolved into the National Gardening Association. "I was doing PR for them and, as the company began to change, I moved out of National Gardening and began to promote a television program that was being done with Dick Raymond." It was "The Dick Raymond Program," which would eventually become known as "The Joy of Gardening," one of the most popular gardening series ever created.

But Garden Way was entering a period of great unrest. As Schaefer puts it, "There was the corporate Garden Way coup, and one half fired the other half, and I was on the side that was being fired." He managed to avoid being fired and continued promoting the television show until "they got after Dick, the Garden Way guys, and fired him."

Schaefer eventually agreed to host the show as an ensemble program with two other people. This team went on to create 39 half hour television programs that Schaefer says ran in about half the cities of the country, were on the Nashville Network for years and, the last he heard, were running on the Home Channel as recently as a year or two ago. "Unfortunately, I did that as an employee, so we never got any residuals," he adds.

It was at the end of 1984, when Garden Way pulled out of Vermont, shrinking from 300 people at 13 locations to none, that Schaefer again took stock of his life. "They wanted me to go to Troy, N.Y. And that's when I went off on my own and started David Schaefer & Co. Those were the booming '80s, and it was so easy to go into business then," he says wistfully.

He rented space at the Chace Mill in Burlington. "There were three of us -- Dale Sutherland (now in business development with Engelberth Construction Co.), Elizabeth Boardman (now married and continuing to run a public relations business in Montpelier) and myself -- plus a part-time secretary."

Things ran pretty smoothly for the first few years, until the recession of 1989 and '90 hit. "We had seven customers," Schaefer recalls, "and within two weeks, we lost four and two didn't pay us, and the business really began to contract." Happily, he continues, he didn't have to fire anybody, because the others had opportunities and moved on. And he just continued as a one- man show, working out of the Chace Mill doing public relations, interviewing, video scripting and ghost-writing a couple of gardening books for John Storey of Storey Publishing.

He counts his watershed moment as one New Year's Day in the early '90s, while watching a CNN special featuring futurists who predicted 25 percent of the population will be working from home. "I thought, Gee, I was spending most of my time at home and just collecting the mail at the office. And during that time, in '91, I got divorced. So in '92, I decided I would just move everything into a home office."

After buying a condominium on Pearl Street in Burlington, he moved himself and his office there and began to outline a book about working from home, which he'd been pondering for a couple of years. "Over 1 million people were setting up home offices every year in the '90s."

He hired an agent who was to work on marketing the book to publishers. And while he waited for that to happen, in 1994, he met Will Eick and Celeste Gaspari on an assignment with Macro International and made a move that he believes is one of the best he's ever done. "I formed a business, with them as my partners, called MarketReach." The interesting thing about MarketReach is that each partner works from his or her home office, pursuing his or her own business interests. "So David Schaefer & Co. is alive and well," Schaefer says. "But when a project comes along that requires the talents of two or more of the partners, they work as MarketReach."

With Schaefer's background in public relations and media, Eick's experience in banking and telecommunications and Gaspari's training in economics with a strong background in health care, MarketReach can cover a lot of territory. Schaefer says they have two niches: one is regional tourism and the other is telecommunications and utilities. On his own, Schaefer is as likely to do a voice-over for a tourism video, such as "Vermont: A Green Mountain Journey" produced by Odyssey Productions, as he is to script, produce and narrate a video on the lake, "The Secret Life of Lake Champlain," with Resolution in South Burlington or act as spokesperson for Central Vermont railroad.

But Schaefer still wanted to pursue the book idea. "I developed a book proposal, found a dozen business publishers in the Literary Marketplace and bundled off proposals. The phone rang in two weeks, and it was Dearborn Publishing in Chicago saying they were interested in the book." This was November 1996, and Dearborn wanted the final manuscript the following May.

He still regrets not getting to keep his original title for the book: "The Lone Eagle Flight Manual: How to Make It on Your Own." The book came out around Christmas, so the first full reporting period won't be until October of this year, when he'll have a better idea of how it's selling. In the meantime, he says he has done some interesting things. He was interviewed on the CNN financial network, had a book signing at Barnes & Noble at Rockefeller Center and did a lot of radio interviews, including CBS. "Now, I'm getting calls from people who have seen review copies of the book and I'm doing a lot of articles on small and home-based business. I just finished two short pieces for Success magazine, which has an every-other-monthly magazine called Working at Home. And a piece for Cruising World, a sailing magazine, about a guy who does his business from his boat, using cell phones." A sailor himself, Schaefer has started thinking about how he might do that someday. At press time, he was setting sail for Cuba to explore the possibilities.

Certainly, Schaefer practices what he preaches. He has experienced, firsthand, the danger factors he outlines in his book, such as the temptation to become reclusive or distracted. "People forget you if you don't go places to show the flag," he says, "and you don't know which phone call you make is going to be the important one. But holding onto the dream is very hard when you're up to your ass in alligators." He says that sometimes he thinks that success for those of us who live alone is just a question of being too dumb to know when we're whipped. "I've had years when I thought, 'My God, do I even cast a shadow? Nobody's returning my phone calls.' "

Schaefer approaches his subject with an understanding attitude, is never arrogant or condescending. You get the feeling you're reading letters from a friend and mentor. Chapters cover a wealth of topics. There's one that deals with making a business plan that recognizes that home life and business are, by choice, intertwined. Another outlines how to organize and evaluate your marketing, followed by smart marketing tactics. Fully covered are strategies for setting your rates, billing and collecting; record-keeping and tax planning; finding money for growth; office set-up and organization; when and why to try moonlighting as a "temp"; moving the business; working from a mobile office; and the outlook for home-based businesses.

In the chapter on public relations, or "Stealth Marketing," there's a picture of a Business Digest leaflet called "How to Write a Press Release" that features a release Schaefer once sent as an April Fool's joke to some business publications. In it, he announced that David Schaefer had been named the "Employee of the Year" at David Schaefer & Co. Television Production and Public Relations, and the award was made at the company's annual banquet, where Schaefer was the only attendee. He says that people still ask for copies.

Perhaps Schaefer's own words best encapsulate the joys and agonies of the home-based entrepreneur. "Working on my boat the other morning, at dawn, there was a huge owl that flew past and perched on the top of the mast two boats over. I said, 'I get it, pal. If you don't kill something today, you don't eat.'"

MarketReach

Dave Schaefer's MarketReach partners put the home office to work.

Will Eick, Shelburne

Like Schaefer, Eick has an independent, home-based business. He compares his situation to that of a boa constrictor. "Once every six months we swallow a pig, we're engorged with work for a while, but we don't control the duration of the project, how big it is, or when the next one comes along. So we can be very busy or we can have down periods. One of the advantages of working from home is that once you get over the psychologically scary part that right now you don't have any business -- last month you did, but now you don't -- you get used to it and you're free to do other things -- your life. And life may be skiing or biking or vacationing." Eick adds he likes to play every day.

He has a bachelor's degree in economics from Oberlin College, a master's degree in teaching and a master's from Dartmouth in computers and information systems. "I went back to school when I was 36," he says, "and if I could find a way to be a full-time student and support a family, I would."

Eick is married and has two children: a son who just left for college and a daughter entering 8th grade. "One of the areas where I had to discipline my family was to believe that I really was working and that they were, one, not to touch or answer the business phone, and that they were to be quiet if they were in the vicinity when I got a call."

All three of the MarketReach partners have business phone lines, which they use for voice, and home lines with ring detectors, which they use for fax and phones. Eick has set up a special box so there's no ring when a fax comes in. "We occasionally do business internationally, and I'll get a fax at 3 a.m. from Spain."

Email is crucial for a company like MarketReach. "One of the services we provide for clients is Internet-based research. And of course, we send stuff back and forth via email."

Celeste Gaspari, Westford

Gaspari claims to live in a household of home-based businesses. That's because her husband, economist Art Woolf, "has a home-based business a half mile down the road, even though he does live with me." Woolf's office is at the home of his partner, Dick Heaps, with whom he publishes an economic newsletter.

Also an economist, Gaspari taught at Wellesley College for two years and at University of Vermont for five years, before leaving academia for Blue Cross/Blue Shield in 1986. In '92, she went to work for Macro International, where she met Eick and, subsequently, Schaefer, with whom she started MarketReach in '94.

Working Woman magazine interviewed her this year about guidelines for setting up a home-based business with children in the house. She has two children, ages 13 and 12, whom she says are "right at the critical Internet usage age." She also uses Ring Mate on her home line to handle fax and Internet usage, leaving her office phone for business calls.

"The summer presents its own set of opportunities and challenges," she says, "but I think a home office really accommodates the child-raising years. I used to do a 100-mile commute from here to Montpelier when they were both under two and Art was working for Madeleine Kunin."

She believes that the MarketReach arrangement is the best of all worlds. "We're incorporated and everything else. We started on a much more traditional route. Sometimes it was only two of us working together. Right now, I'm working as a 12-month consultant to the state Health Department, working on the state health plan, and David is doing other work that doesn't have anything to do with our company. As David said, the company should work for us, we're not working for it."

She confesses that her working pretty much full time on this health project has been tough for the company. "Other companies would ask me to step out, but this company and the state are flexible enough so I can do both."

A major problem with work-at-homes, she says, is that Vermont is kind of an isolating environment to begin with. "But it doesn't come home until you're out here in the middle of March watching the road go by. It comes down to maintaining dollars and maintaining your sanity. It's the perfect environment to work at home, but it's also a perfect spot to get out of the network." She says that once in a while Heaps, who's down the road doing the same thing she is, will give her buzz and ask, "Hey, have you watched Mr. Food at noon today?" She laughs.