Home Work

Five home-based entrepreneurs discuss the good, the bad and the frustrating when it comes to home offices.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Ron and Ann Lewis, Hesfield Enterprises Inc., d/b/a Computer Care, Colchester

In a recent Vermont Public Radio program on Vermont's economy, Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz said small, home-based businesses or industries represent the fastest growing sector of Vermont's economy. As Internet access and computer technology continue to make it easier for people to set up at home, the number of home-based entrepreneurs will likely increase.

A group of Vermonters who do business from their homes shared with us their motivations and challenges, and tips for others who might be itching to try it.

Computer Care provides consulting services to small business, both networked and stand-alone systems, says Ron. "We are a one-stop shop for small businesses for any of their IT needs. We specialize in data protection strategy implementation, specifically remote data backup that's new to the market.

Division of labor: Ron handles the technical end sales, support and service. As office manager, Ann takes care of administrative work. "Ron makes the money, and I spend it," she says laughing.

Why a home office? The Lewises started Computer Care in 1995. They chose their home as the base of operations "because it was cheap," Ann exclaims.

"Ninety-five percent of our business is done at the customer location, and we do not retail hardware or software," says Ron. "It just made sense to be a home-based business."

Challenges: Ann says she is tempted to goof off. Ron puts a premium on managing casual non-business interruptions. "It's springtime; there's a lot of planting to be done; a lot of yard work. Being disciplined enough to assign non-business stuff to non-business time is important. Conversely, the challenge is how to manage not doing business when getting away from work. Historically, the only way I really get away is to leave town, but that's one of the reasons I'm in business for myself. I really enjoy what I do."

As the one who's more often at home, Ann struggles with distractions. "When do I do my housework and when do I do my office work?" she asks. "I try to find that balance a load of laundry, cook something. It takes more self-discipline. I can't start this, stop that. You have to prioritize differently.

"One of the other things is the isolationism," says Ann. "We're alone together here. On one side, you don't have to deal with personality quirks and interrelationships with people, but on the flip side, you lose a lot of the stimulation and creativity that comes from working with other people."

Ron says his involvement with various groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary, which he uses as networking sources, gets him out of the house on a regular basis. "It's by design," he says, "and it helps my business."

What has made you question working from home? Right after they started the business, the Lewises had their remote data backup on modem (it's now done through an Internet hookup). "Back then, even if there wasn't something wrong, when people dialed in, it would wake us up in the middle of the night making this tremendous noise. We used to call it our baby," Ann says, "so I'd whap him and say, 'It's your turn.' When we moved the office away from the bedroom, we didn't hear it."

Ron and Ann have four cats who regularly visit them at work. "We have one, Callie, who watches the fax machine," says Ann. "She sits right in front of it like she's receiving the fax. We call her the fax cat."

Would you do it again? "Definitely," they say in unison.

Carolyn Bates Photography, Burlington

Carolyn Bates is a location photographer specializing in architecture, although she also does portraits and studio work. "I started out in the late '60s doing portraits, then photojournalism for Vermont Life and Yankee magazines, and stories on sailing in various countries around the world for all the sailing magazines of the U.S. I did other sports, too," she says.

Why a home office? Bates says the biggest incentive was that working from home was cost-effective.

In the early 1980s, she took a class at Harvard Business School. "They told us how to do a marketing study to figure out where we should place ourselves, and in doing that, it came up with architecture. I'd been shooting houses for Realtors and myself forever. My first client in 1973 was a Realtor in Burlington. So I closed my studio down and moved everything back into my house in 1985."

From 1985 to 1989, she worked solely out of her house, before succumbing to her desire to have an office near the lake. "I've loved being on the lake, so I moved half of my office to Battery Street, but I found I was continually hauling stuff in my car between the two offices. Two years later, she again moved everything home.

Challenges: "I really like working out of my house," Bates says with a hearty laugh. "Do you mean like leaving work and not working? When I was in my early 20s, I worked for an artist who was an Orthodox Jew, and he religiously kept the Sabbath. I said, 'How do you do it?' He said, 'I al ways take 24 hours and not do any of my own work, I do pleasurable things not connected to my business.' I found that's probably one of the best lessons I've been taught, so Sundays, I don't do work for other people. That's my day off.

"I need that time out. Now, if it's a gorgeous day and I have work to do, I look at my schedule as to exactly how much work I have, and I might take a long walk with my dog after work. I need to feel I should finish my work before I'm given the word by the employer that it's all right to take time off.

"The hardest thing for me was to learn to separate personal life and my work life. That's been a real struggle," says Bates. "My friends were my models, I used them for props, then taking all those sailing photos, I'd go out with them for dinner and play. It was all mixed up into one. I found it really hard to charge these people who wanted photos."

A night person, Bates says she sometimes has trouble "kicking myself out of bed in the morning. I tend to be more of a 9 in the morning until 9 at night or midnight."

Because her home is not in a business neighborhood, "people don't walk by and see my name," she says. This is reflected in the kind of marketing she must do.

"Then there's the isolation I feel at not having support groups immediately at hand to ask questions of.

"And another thing: No paid vacations, so generally vacations end up being work," she says.

Bates also mentions the challenge posed by all the paperwork that comes from managing her own pension program and health insurance. "Then you have to take out the trash, get your own water and get your own coffee," she quips.

Would you do it again? "Yes, based on where I am now. There have been times I've really wanted to quit, and for two years, I actually spent time looking at other jobs in town.

"But my dog can always go with me to work. That is one of the main reasons I decided to work out of my house." Bates' dog is an English springer spaniel named Lady Dickens.

"I like that I can pick my own hours. It's allowed me to partake in the last five years in some of the small political issues in Ward 5 in Burlington I've gotten to know my neighborhood a lot better.

Emmanuel Tissot, French Dressing, Jericho

French Dressing designs and imports fashion footwear. "We have a designer in New York," says Tissot, and he designs a line of product." Called Giraudon, the shoes are manufactured in Portugal and distributed across the United States. "That means we go to trade shows, contact our customers, this and that, and sell the goods," Tissot says.

"So I'm sitting in my home; my business partner is in her home in Charlotte; the designer's sitting in New York; the factory is in Portugal; the warehouse is in South Burlington; and customers are spread all over the country. We all telecommute, although we do get together occasionally."

Tissot's business partner is his former wife, Christine Gros, who stayed with the business when the couple separated. "She is in charge of all the more administrative aspects, deliveries and invoicing and all that," he says.

Why a home office? In business for 20 years, French Dressing wasn't always home-based. Until August 2000, the company operated out of an office in Williston. "When we changed the software of the computer to one that would be closer to the paperless office, we could do it," says Tissot. "Then we started to think about all that money we were paying to third parties, and my partner and I could have room in our homes for offices if we needed to and could split that. We made the move when I moved to Jericho," says Tissot.

Rather than take the home business deduction on his taxes, Tissot rents to French Dressing the part of his home the business uses and reports his rental income.

Challenges: "If you have a family, that would be more difficult," says Tissot, "but for a single guy, there is nothing really that I consider a challenge." He hesitates for a second, then says, "The only thing is you don't meet people, because you don't go out. But that's the case with all small businesses, even in an office. So if you have a network of friends, that's all right.

"The other thing is to make sure you have high-speed access to the Internet, which I do not have, and it's a real pain," he says laughing. "It's getting to be a worse and worse pain every day."

What has made you question working from home? "I've been very happy with that," he says. Then he says, "One of the challenges I should mention is that nothing beats being in an office where everybody is and everybody knows what's happening, overhears conversations with customers on the phone, that informal communication. That doesn't happen anymore, so you have to be willing, as a manager, to lose a little bit of control and leave more initiative to the people. You have to trust them to come to you when they have a problem. You have to be very formal in the communication process."

Would you do it again? Definitely in my situation, meaning middle-middle-age man, single, who likes to live in the countryside. If I were 30 years old and wanted to meet people, probably not. If I were 35 years old with kids, probably not. But in my situation, I wouldn't do it any differently.

Marian Fritz Bookkeeping & Financial Services, South Hero

Marian Fritz performs bookkeeping and financial consulting services for small business and, through a second business called It's Your Business, she runs workshops for small-business people.

Why a home office? "My business is such that I'm in clients' offices all the time, and I need a central base from which to operate," says Fritz.

Challenges: "The temptation to put things off or not get to them, because you can always think of something to do. Cookies are calling from the cabinet; the garden is calling; always on a nice day to take a walk. Those are lots more fun than calling people back or doing people's quarterlies." There's no danger from housework, though. "I hate doing housework and I love my work" Fritz quips. "You think dusting is more tempting? Give me a break. In nice weather, it's nice to take a break, do a little bit of gardening, and the work is still there. You can just work a little later at night." A big temptation for Fritz is what she calls "puppy games" with her seven dogs two Cairn terriers, three American Eskimo dogs and two West Highland terriers.

"Actually," she says after some thought, "probably the downside is more just working for yourself. You're always accessible; people call you at all hours of the night, weekends, because you're there. Somebody calling on a Saturday morning with their crisis du jour. They don't consider that you have office hours.

Would you do it again? "I think it's probably the only way to do this kind of business. It used to be you could bring [clients'] work home and do it on your own computer, but now everybody's got computers at their own offices, and they want you to be there with them," Fritz says.

Anne M. Imhoff, Exit 10, Waterbury

Anne Imhoff publishes Waterbury's monthly community newspaper, Exit 10. "It started in 1988 as an all-volunteer effort," she says. "I took it over in 1994 as a sole proprietorship, changed it from being a newsletter that came out every two months to a tabloid that comes out monthly."

Why a home office? "Primarily finances," says Imhoff. "There are office spaces in the community, and I really just need one room, but it didn't make economic sense for the kind of money the paper generates.

From its inception, Exit 10 had always operated out of a home. "When I took it over, I moved it from someplace else to my home." Imhoff has people come in occasionally and help with the paper free-lancers but says it doesn't warrant having employees, because it's a monthly. If she ever decides to take it to weekly, "then it would require a full staff," she says.

"It's certainly very convenient to be operating out of my home, rather than having to go down the street. I start working around 7 a.m. and if I have a brainstorm at midnight, everything's right here," she says.

Imhoff has an advisory board made up of community members. She meets with them at least once a year and is in regular e-mail contact with them.

"This is really a community endeavor, because unless the various organizations and groups in town send me their news, there's no way I can cover everything. I have over a hundred articles for this issue, and only enough ads for eight pages. There's a challenge: to get sufficient advertisers to print enough pages to cover all the information that comes in."

Challenges: "Sometimes I resist procrastinating, and sometimes I don't. I'm officially on duty Tuesday through Friday mornings from 9 to 12 and other times as people can catch me, so I have my afternoons free to either sell ads or play with the dog or take long walks or whatever I feel like doing in my semi-retirement."

Sometimes Imhoff has to screen her calls. "The phone calls about the paper at 10 o'clock on Sunday night are one reason my answering machine gives the hours I'm available. Those are the office business hours. Frequently, if I do get calls at strange hours of the night or on weekends, I just have to let the answering machine take them. I screen the calls that way."

Would you do it again? "Oh, sure! I love doing the paper. The overall community support is very good, because the paper covers stuff that's happening in the town that other papers in the neighborhood like the Stowe Reporter or Valley News, which are weeklies just can't cover. And most of the community really enjoys getting the paper.

"Former residents who have retired to Arizona or wherever take out subscriptions so they know what's happening in their home town. It's very rewarding. As I don't have any kids or any family, it keeps me very connected with the community." Anne Imhoff

Originally published in May 2002 Business People-Vermont