Category Archives: Work at home

Mompreneurs have options military moms don’t

mombabyThe front page of the New York Times yesterday carried an article on women balancing military duty and family. The military seems to have adapted fairly well to women serving alongside men, just as the workplace has over the past several decades. “Motherhood, though,” says the writer of the article, Lizette Alvarez, “poses a more formidable challenge for the armed forces.”

The corporate world is also still struggling with how to accommodate motherhood. The difficulties presented by that dual life — corporate gig and loving mom — are one reason so many women start their own companies before they work their way up to that corner office.

“Hanging on to today’s war-savvy, battle-tested cadre of mothers — and would-be mothers — is both crucial and difficult for the Army, say officers, enlistees and experts. ‘The Army’s challenge, but also the military’s challenge, is to help service members feel they don’t have to choose between family life and their military career,’ said Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, an organization supported in part by the Department of Defense.”

“’They leave when they can’t figure out’ a way to do both, she said.” Just as many mothers leave their corporate positions when they can’t reconcile the demands of their work calendar with their kid’s schedules.

Running their own businesses allows mothers the freedom to control their own calendars. Being able to schedule business trips so they don’t interfere with kids’ birthdays and school plays, to set client meetings at a time that will still get you to soccer practice by pickup, can make all the difference. It’s one of the chief advantages of entrepreneurship, especially for parents.

Most mothers I know who’ve started a company aren’t really looking for a way to work less hard. Entrepreneurs of every stripe work hard. They’re attracted to entrepreneurship partly because it allows them to work on their own terms  — and around their kids’ routines. They might put in a few hours before the kids wake up and break to get them breakfast and off to the school bus. They might field phone calls on their cell while driving a backseat of ballerinas to dance class. Or take the afternoon to oversee homework and fix dinner, but spend a productive few hours on the computer after the kids are in bed.

Starting a business is also a way women can have it both ways. They can manage the needs of their children, but not miss the excitement and satisfaction of doing work they love and are good at. Those two driving forces are much more difficult to reconcile when the place you work is a war zone.

“Not long after reuniting with her children in 2005, Specialist Holschlag said, she was sitting alone in her apartment in Iowa when she was struck by a thought she recognized as absurdly selfish: she wanted to go back to Iraq.”

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After a baby, is starting a company a better idea than going back to work?

babyMaggie would really rather be at home with her new baby, but went back to her job after a standard maternity leave because she and her husband decided they couldn’t afford for her not to work. Several months into it, she’s figured out that after paying for childcare and other expenses associated with the job, she nets about $300 a month. So, in her words, she’s working “to pay for a couple of tanks of gas and some groceries.”

Is there not a better way to make $300? Maggie is the sister of a friend of mine, and I’ve only met her once or twice, but I can’t quit thinking about her situation. I remember what it was like to have a new baby and be torn away by work. And I loved my work at the time, although I understand Maggie is not crazy about her job. I do know she comes from an entrepreneurial family, so the idea of starting her own business is probably not foreign to her.

What sort of business could she start that would mean limited time away from her baby? We’re not talking about the kind of all-consuming startup that requires 80 hours a week or depends on venture capital to get off the ground. To quit her job, Maggie would only need to create $3,600 a year in net profit. That’s not so hard to do. Let’s look at some hypothetical possibilities, making some huge assumptions about what sorts of skills and talents she might have to offer — and the kinds of things she’d actually enjoy doing.

A good solution would be something she could bill by the hour, for only a handful of hours a week. Let’s say she’s a talented tennis player and could give tennis lessons, or fluent in French and could tutor high school students, or a math whiz and could serve as an SAT coach for kids trying to raise their scores. If she charged $50 an hour, or even $35, she could work a very short week and clear her $300 net, even if she had to pay a babysitter. Although, she also might schedule some of those hours during the weekends when her husband could be with the baby.

Let’s say she’s been keeping the company books on Quickbooks at her current job. So many small businesses use that accounting software, many of which might not be large enough to have a full-time bookkeeper but would like to outsource the accounts payable, accounts receivable and basic financial reports. She could handle the books for one or two small companies by going in just a morning or so a week and come home with that $300 or more.

What about starting a company that would provide something needed by other mothers with young kids? I remember several years ago a  woman in New York had the brilliant idea of an exercise class in Central Park that incorporated baby strollers (and babies) into the fitness routine. Maybe Maggie was a lifeguard and swim instructor in her youth and could start a group swimming class for mothers and babies using her mom’s backyard pool.

One trick to making this plan work would be choosing a business that offers the chance of recurring income from the same clients month after month. In other words, she signs up one student for tennis lessons and sees them once a week for months on end. Or connects with a small business who could use a freelance bookkeeper and continues to do their books until they’re large enough to need someone full time. Otherwise, she’ll need to spend a large amount of her time marketing her services so she can create new clients over and over.

Selling your hours adds up more quickly than selling a thing. Particularly a thing that requires hard costs for materials or equipment.  This is not always true, but I think would be for the types of things I can imagine someone like Maggie selling, like homemade greeting cards (she’s very crafty) or hand sewn baby bonnets or fresh-baked birthday cakes. She would have to sell a whole bunch of any of those to make her $300 each month. If you have a skill or talent that allows you to charge a significant hourly rate, that can be an easier path to doing without a paycheck.

Starting a company as a mompreneur doesn’t have to be complicated. If you don’t need to rent office space or hire employees or buy expensive equipment, the startup doesn’t have to cost much either. This is not meant to be a pushy plug for our products, but the Start Your Own Company application for the iPhone is just .99 and could walk Maggie through the basic steps of launching a business. Or she could try the more comprehensive Start Your Own Company printed deck from Starter Cards, which also includes information on the Launch and Follow-Through phases as well as the Launch phase. Either one could be a simple first step to creating a life-sized business that works for this stage of her life.


25 companies you could start without quitting your day job

I’m a big fan of every working person starting a small business as a Plan B — even if they’re gainfully employed at a rock-solid company. Just in case your job suddenly went away, you’d already have that Plan B company in place and making a little revenue. You might decide to ramp it up into a full-time endeavor. Or you might just be extra grateful for that non-salary income while you’re looking for the next job.

dogwalkerEven if you stay at your current job for years to come, it’s still helpful for your peace of mind to have that company on the side. If nothing else, it gives you something else to focus on when you have a bad day at work.

The best sideline company is one based on some particular passion. It could be your lifelong desire to be a rock star or your keen interest in the history of your city or your secret love of cake decorating. I’m not talking about starting a business taking in ironing (unless you love ironing), but something that’s fun for you and that you don’t get to do at your real job. 

But how are you supposed to launch a company when you work 9-5? There are plenty of small businesses you could handle on weekends or evenings. Here are 25 ideas, just to get your wheels turning. If none of these sound right for you, maybe one will give you an idea for something else you might want to launch in your spare time.

1. Pet Sitting Service: Charge a fee to care for pets in their owners’ homes while they’re on vacation or away on business. Besides feeding the dogs and cats and lizards, you might also offer dog walks, plant watering and mail collection.

2. Birthday Party Entertainment: Can you put on a clown costume and make balloon animals? Stage a magic show for toddlers? Bring in bunnies and sheep for a farm party, complete with pony rides?

3. Tennis Coach: Or golf, or swimming, or batting. If you’re particularly good at a sport, you can coach kids, or maybe even adults, for an hourly fee.

4. Holiday Lights and Decorations: Offer to string lights in trees and hang wreaths, for a fee. Or offer all the bells and whistles of a Santa theme, or Winter Wonderland, or Reindeer Village. 

5. Garage Organizer: We recently hired a local company to come in and give us a garage makeover, with new paint, sealed floor, installed cabinets and wire frames with hooks for everything from garden tools to bike helmets. You also might offer a service for figuring out where everything will go, once the cabinets and hooks are in place.

6. Junk Hauler: Okay, this may not be something that fuels a passion, but it’s a great weekend sideline, if you happen to have access to a giant truck. Companies like 1-800-Got Junk are adding franchises all the time, but I’ve also noticed some homegrown local competition in our area lately.

7. Private Language Tutor: Speak fluent French? Or Mandarin? You could offer lessons by the hour. I have a language-savvy friend who also has clients who pay to spend an hour just having conversation with her — in their chosen language.

8. Bicycle Trainer: The New York Times had an article not long ago about the increasing number of parents hiring someone else to teach their kids to ride a bike. You could charge by the hour, or an inclusive fee that covers all your time until the kid gets the hang of it and can ride unassisted.

9. Party Caterer: Are you a fabulous cook? Love to pull together a dinner party or a big buffet? Maybe you could do a little catering on the side. 

10. Boot Camp Instructor: Offer a Saturday morning class in a local park and kick some butt. Or give personal training sessions in clients’ homes. 

11. Bat/Bar Mitzvah Planner: I know plenty of mothers who consider putting together their kids’ bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah to be an intense (and nearly overwhelming) year-long project. If you’ve thrown a few yourself, perhaps you’d be useful as a planner for others in your area. 

12. Tour Guide: Are you particularly knowledgeable about the history of your city? Or the architecture of an historic neighborhood? Maybe you could put together a walking tour for Saturday or Sunday afternoons. In Chapel Hill, there’s a professor who used to do an annual tour of the old town cemetery, complete with colorful stories of some of the town’s earlier citizens. 

13. Resume Writer: There’s got to be a huge market for this right now. If you’re particularly good at crafting resumes, or knowledgeable about hiring practices, you could be helpful for job hunters wanting to put their best foot forward.

14. Personal Bookkeeper: Can you put a family’s finances on Quicken and track their spending? Help people develop a budget? Handle routine financial chores like reconciling accounts or paying bills? Then there’s a market out there waiting for you. (You might want to steer clear of offering actual financial advice, though. Bound to be some laws regulating that.)

15. Deliver Home-Cooked Meals: Could you spend your Sunday afternoons making giant vats of chili, pans of lasagna and tuna casseroles? Or maybe healthier versions of comfort food? People might pay to have a meal or two delivered Sunday evening so they’ve got dinner handled for Monday and some leftovers for the rest of the week.

16. Freelance Writer: Maybe you could spend some weekend time querying magazines or websites for article assignments. This is certainly easier if you already have a track record as a paid writer, but smaller local pubs are sometimes easier to break into.

17. Party Band: Tell your buddies the band’s getting back together. I know one band made of lawyers who play parties on weekends. When I first met my husband, he would travel every weekend because his band was paying colleges and country clubs across two states. Learn a few more covers and some dance tunes, and start strutting your stuff.

18. Landlord: If you’ve ever considered buying some rental property, this could be the time. You might buy a condo that needs a little renovating to become a great rental unit. Or a house that’s in a great neighborhood for renters. 

19. Custom Treehouse Builder: If you’ve got carpentry skills and some imagination, you could have a business building tree forts and play houses for backyards. If you think no one would pay for that, think again. Even if affluent  households have cut back on spending recently, they’re still whipping out their wallets for things having to do with their kids.

20. Fishing Guide: Are you an expert on where the fish are in your area? Hire yourself out as a fishing guide.

21. Kayak Guide: Know the river like the back of your hand? You might start a small adventure company for occasional weekend trips. 

22. Handmade Invitations: Offer custom invitations you print on your letterpress or create out of handmade paper and buttons and feathers — or whatever. You could also make greeting cards and sell them on etsy or convince local shops to carry them.

23. Online Merchant:  I had a friend who was passionate about babies being carried close to their mothers in fabric slings. So passionate that she started a website to sell them. You might be more passionate about selling rare books or handmade handbags or restored vintage dollhouses. 

24. Car Detailing: Are you a freak for cars and a master of cleaning them correctly, inside and out? You might start a weekend business selling your services to other car owners.

25. Social Media Coach: If you’re savvy in social media, you’ve got something to share. Plenty of Boomers are feeling way behind the curve on the whole social media thing, and would gladly pay for someone to get them up to speed over a weekend.

Small Business Strategies: 6 ways to take a vacation — even if you don’t have a staff

vacation dudeAs a freelancer or solo practitioner, it can be tricky to arrange time off for a vacation. What happens if a client calls and suddenly needs something quickly? How do you keep existing projects moving while you’re gone? And would being out of the office on vacation actually be more stressful than just working?

But there are ways to make it work. Here are six to consider:

1. Trade out time with someone who does what you do. I know a realtor who uses another realtor as her backup when she’s on vacation. If she has a closing while she’s out of town, the other realtor goes in her place. Then she returns the favor when that realtor wants to take time off.

2. Train a temporary assistant to keep the place running. This works best if you don’t mind fielding the occasional phone call or email to deal with work issues while you’re out. The temp can keep the ball rolling and deal with minor issues, but call you for anything that requires your skills or decision making. 

3. Have someone on call, just in case. In the early days at Tribe, I would have a freelance creative director on call when I was out of town. If anything came up that had to be addressed while I was away, I  trusted his judgement and knew he’d handle it similar to the way I would, or at least at a taste level I would approve of. Many times, my clients were fine just waiting until I was back. 

4. Call in a mom or retiree. If you’re wary of having a competitive freelancer filling in for you, try someone who’s not really in the market for clients anymore. A colleague in your industry who’s now retired, or a parent who quit working to be home with the kids, will often enjoy the chance to get back in the game for a short while. 

5. Take your work with you. This works best if you can keep your business running for a week or so with just an hour or two of your attention a day. A media planner I know is in Chautauqua right now for a three-week family vacation. She’s keeping up to date on emails while she’s there, and doing the occasional conference call, so her clients are getting what they need even while she’s out.

6. Tell your clients you’ll be out. I remember hearing about one freelancer who actually found this a pretty good way to drum up business. She would call all her steady clients several weeks out to let them know she was taking a vacation such and such a week, and that she’d like to get anything they might need taken care of now so they weren’t inconvenienced while she was out. Her clients felt like they’d been given sufficient warning of her unavailability and appreciated her professional approach. Often, it would even make her clients think of new projects they’d like to add to her plate.

When you work at home, do people think you aren’t really working?

home office woman cell phoneOne downside of working at home is that sometimes people forget that you actually work for a living. When you don’t have that visible demarcation between work and home, when you don’t set off each morning to an office across town where you’re largely unavailable to family and friends, it seems to blur the lines for people. 

My mother still doesn’t get that my sister has a successful and demanding career in ad sales. All she sees is that Amanda’s at home all day, so she assumes her daughter is at her beck and call to drive over and do whatever an old lady might need at the moment. She’ll call in the middle of the workday to get Amanda to accompany her to Costco or come catch a cat and stick it in the pet carrier to go to the vet. 

I have a friend who’s an awesome realtor, with an office at home. She schedules showing houses and closings around her kids’ schedules, so she’s able to pick them up after school and be around in the afternoon. But sometimes her family has a tendency to forget she’s not a stay-at-home-mom. Her daughter forgets that she can’t volunteer at school quite as much as the moms who don’t work. Her  husband occasionally has to be reminded that she works too, so he’s going to have to pitch in with the grocery shopping and other tasks that keep a household going. Friends, too, seem to think they can drop by in the middle of the day and have her available to hang out. I can’t imagine that happening if my realtor friend worked in an office off-site.

When my husband first moved to his home office, I was guilty of the same mistake. Because he was there, I would just assume that I could leave for an early meeting before the nanny arrived, or that I could be a little late getting home at the end of the day. He was actually much more easy going about it than I would have been if the tables were turned, but eventually he called me on it. How did I know he didn’t have a breakfast meeting himself that day? How could he know whether he could fit in a bike ride after work if he had no idea what time I was coming home?

Here are a few thoughts on how to help your family and friends understand that your workday is not optional for you:

1. It’s up to you to mark your boundaries: If you always give in to whatever anyone asks of you during your workday, then it will be much more difficult for them to get the idea that you’re sometimes off-limits because of work. 

2. Practice some non-martyr-like reminders: Try not to make a big emotional deal out of it. You can offer gentle reminders that you’re busy too by saying things like, “I’ve got a conference call at 9, so I’m going to get in the shower now,” or “I have a deadline that afternoon, so it might be better if you pick up the kids.”

3. Respect your own work hours: If someone asks you for a lunch you know will be a long drawn-out affair and you usually power through lunch at your desk with a quick sandwich while you’re working, you can say that you don’t take a real lunch so you can be finished up with work before your daughter’s soccer practice. When you get an invitation to one of those parties where you’re supposed to buy the clothes on display in your friends’ home, it’s perfectly fine to say you’re so sorry, but you can’t take that afternoon off work. 

4. Use the same language you would if you worked for a boss in an office: If someone calls and asks what you’re doing, say “working” instead of “hanging out here at the house.” When someone asks you to do something, say you’ll see if you can “take that time off.” Call your office your office, even if it’s a corner of the den. 

5. Don’t forget that this downside is also an upside: One of the great things about working from home is that you are able to blur those lines between work and home sometimes. Let’s say your son wakes up with the flu. It’s really great to be able to stay home with him and not have to explain that to your boss. Once in a while, you might even want to blow off the afternoon to go to a movie with a friend. It’s nice to have that flexibility.

Home office strategies: Working with your kids underfoot

Baby with cell phoneOne of the best reasons to work at home is being there for your kids during the day. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be times you’re pulling out your hair. When my business partner Jennifer had a home office, she once spent a very long client phone call with her son Colin perched on her shoulders, using her scissors to cut up a $20 bill. Really. At least it was keeping him quiet, and she realized she would gladly pay someone twenty bucks to keep Colin from screaming his head off during that call.

Sometimes it’s tricky, but it’s doable. You just need some strategies for getting your work done amidst the inevitable chaos. Here are six tips to make it easier:

1. Email is God’s gift to WAH parents. Handle as much business communication as possible by email instead of phone. In cyberspace, no one can hear the screaming kid standing beside you.

 2. Naps are good. You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish while your child is napping. We enforced an hour or so of afternoon quiet time with Sam until he was at least five. Usually, he would sleep, but sometimes he would play quietly in his room or look at books. He knew he was forbidden to cross that baby gate across his doorway until I came to get him.

 3.Give your child some work to do. You’ll have an easier time getting your work done if your child is busy too. Older kids things that are actually useful, like stuffing envelopes or stapling papers. Younger ones can have a little desk next to yours for coloring. I used to keep a basket of books in my home office for Sam to look through. I also filled a small set of index card drawers with little toys for him to explore. He’d rifle through them to find plastic cars, rubber frogs, and odds and ends from around the house that were too big to swallow. Even a baby does better with something to do. Set the bouncy seat facing the wall where he or she can see the shadows of the leaves outside blowing in the wind.

4. Get a nanny, babysitter or neighborhood kid to help. There are only so many parts of your job that can be done with children underfoot. Unless your kids are in school most of the day, you probably need some uninterrupted time to work. Even if you can only swing that help a few hours a day, you’ll know you’ve got that time to get the most important stuff done. I’ve learned from experience that it’s very difficult to be an attentive parent when you’re focused on writing or other intense work.

 5. Have a plan for important phone calls. If your children are old enough to understand, you can explain how important it is to have quiet when you’re on a business call. But for the younger ones, bribery can work. I used to keep a bag of M&Ms in my desk drawer in case a client called while Sam was around. He knew that as long as he was quiet, I’d dole out one M&M every minute or so. 

 6. If all else fails, leave the house. Sometimes there’s just no reasoning with a colicky baby or a whiny two year old. If another adult is at home, grab your cell phone and drive up to the corner to have that phone conversation. If no other adult is handy, you might try locking yourself in the bathroom to take that client call.

The advantages of a home office

Feet and computerMy husband recently went from a corporate gig to a home office. For years, Steve was with a giant global company, working in the office of their North American headquarters and jetting off to New York or Amsterdam on a regular basis.

Now he works out of his home office in a basement bedroom. Instead of a view of the Atlanta skyline, he looks out on our neighbor’s bass boat parked on a trailer.

I told him he wouldn’t like it. I thought he’d miss the camaraderie of the office, the convenience of assistants, the excitement of being a big shot at a big company.

I was wrong. Steve is happy as a clam down there. He goes to work in shorts and a T-shirt, unless he’s got to go out for a meeting. He can check in with our son when he gets home from school, maybe shoot a few baskets out in the driveway with Sam. He has easy access to good coffee and half and half. If he’s not meeting someone for lunch, he can usually find something healthy to eat in the kitchen.

So much business is done by phone or email nowadays. And it’s just as easy to handle that from a home office as a big office. Steve’s business partners are in Canada and Switzerland, so they hold meetings on Skype. And occasionally he goes to New York or San Diego or Canada or Switzerland for meetings.

I loved working from home. Now I’m the one in the glass office tower, but for our son’s early years, I worked from a converted screened porch off our kitchen. I could take breaks to play with Sam for a few minutes, so he got to see me off and on during the workday. I was right there if his nanny had a question. And I could drop him off in the mornings at his pre-school up the street and be at my desk five minutes later.

Imagine being able to open your office window and for a little fresh air. Feet and computerWhen my business partner Jennifer went from a corporate cubicle to her home office, she felt a new sense of freedom. She couldn’t get over how great it was to be out in the real world during the day instead of housed somewhere in the fluorescent-lighted sprawl of a Fortune 100 company.

There are a huge number of small business owners who never shower until midday. They get up in the morning and sit down at their desk. My friend Marilou, who ran McFarlane Marketing out of a home office for a few years, said her UPS guy had never seen her in anything but sweats and a ponytail, because her routine was to work all morning, go running at lunch, and then take a shower and get dressed sometime early afternoon. 

There are many practical advantages to a home office. You don’t have to pay rent. You can work without the interruptions of a traditional office environment. Your commute is pretty short. You can be there during the day for your kids. Your dog can lie at your feet while you work.

But the biggest advantage is quality of life. For many people, escaping a corporate environment and working in a home office means a huge improvement in their work-life balance.