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Choosing Your Home-Based Business

Deciding where you are, what you want, and how to get there

choosing home based careerOne of the most common questions I hear from stay-at-home moms and working moms alike is this: “I’d like to work from home, but I don’t know what I would do!” This is always a difficult question to respond to, because the best person to answer that question is actually the person who asks it. There are many different options available to choose from when it comes to working from home. But the best way to choose from among them is to examine them from the context of who you are.

If you want to work from home, you could start a home-based business, buy into a franchise, or even get involved in some network marketing opportunity. The problem is that not everybody is cut out to run their own business. On the other hand, you could try to find work as an independent contractor. But what kind of work you do and what kinds of jobs you can get are going to be highly dependent on you and your own life and career experiences. You can try to find a telecommuting situation; they are few and far between, but they exist.

But before you start thinking about what kind of home-based work you can do, before you start looking into any one of these options, you first need to decide if you are the kind of person who should be working from home in the first place.

Quite a lot of us want to work from home so that we will be more available to our children. That’s a good reason, because a values-based decision will often give us the fortitude to tough it out when things go wrong. Working from home is always challenging, particularly for women with young children. On the other hand, if you think working from home will be easier, think again. Not only is that a pretty poor reason for such a major decision, it isn’t even true. Without the impetus of a supervisor, you will be responsible for making sure you do whatever it is you are responsible to your boss or your customers for. Without the ongoing stimulation of contact with co-workers, you will also need to find substitutes for that social interaction, or risk burnout. You will certainly be more available to your children, but you won’t be able to spend their every waking moment doing the “mom” thing. You’ll have your own work to do.

I got the chance to talk to Betsy Kyte Newman, author of Getting Unstuck: Moving Ahead With Your Career, about the challenge of figuring out what to do when you want to work from home. She advises beginning with a rigorous, even ruthless, self-assessment to be sure you have the right stuff. Here’s a short list of the kinds of qualities you need in order to work from home:

You’ll need to be

  • independent
  • a self-starter
  • disciplined
  • an extrovert
  • a salesman
  • adventurous
  • a gambler
  • practical, with a rational business model and a reliable financial cushion

Probably most of the things on this list make sense to you. Obviously, you’ll need to be the sort of person who can work responsibly without supervision, whether you are running your own business, freelancing or telecommuting. And any time you are doing something that is outside the norm — like working from home — you need to be a bit adventurous, a bit of a gambler. And of course you see the need for the business model and the financial cushion.

But a salesman? you might say. I don’t want to go into sales! I want to start a web design business. Or maybe … I want to get contracted work programming in C++. Or quite possibly … I want to continue the work I’m doing in the office now, just from home.

Well, no matter how you slice it, you’ll need to be convincing, and that means salesmanship. It’s easy to see if you are running your own business, because whether you deal in goods or offer services, you’ll need to sell your outfit to potential customers or clients. As an independent contractor, you’ll still have to sell yourself — as opposed to your company — to get the gigs you crave. Even telecommuters have to do a bit of selling, when they are convincing their bosses or potential bosses that they have the right stuff to work from home.

So, once you have taken a good hard look at yourself and fully understood that a desire to be at home with your children is not, by itself, enough to motivate a successful home-based career, you are ready for the next step: deciding what kind of work to do from home.

At this point, you have to be willing to really leave your comfort zone and call up that adventurous nature you’ve decided that you have. In the course of that ruthless self-assessment, you may discover that you don’t really want your home-based career to be a continuation of what you’ve been doing for the past fifteen years in an office. It might be easy to envision yourself working from home as an administrative assistant for somebody, but what if you can’t find anybody willing to hire a work from home secretary?

This is when it becomes time to create what Ms. Newman calls a “Plan B” for your career, complete with professional and personal goals. Maybe you can figure out a way to do your old job in a new way … like starting a virtual assistant business.

Or just maybe … it’s time to trash the old job and create something new for yourself. That’s a fairly scary thought for many of us. How could I possibly do that at this late stage of the game?

It’s not as difficult as it may sound. In fact, it’s not even particularly uncommon. According to a Labor Department report released in August, 2000, “[t]he average person in the U.S. holds 9.2 jobs from age 18 to age 34. More than half of these jobs were held between the ages of 18 and 24.” Even among older Americans, switching careers when your current situation isn’t working for you is happening more and more often.

So, let’s get started.

The very best way to figure out what kind of work you should do is to, once again, begin by taking a look at who you are. That makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, adult people spend most of their waking lives doing whatever it is that they do to make money, for pretty much three-fourths of their lives. If you are going to have to spend that much time on it, doesn’t it make sense to do something you actually enjoy doing?

So, who are you, anyway? Where have you been in all the previous years that make up your experience? What are you interested in, how do you like to spend your time? What skills have you picked up, what networks have you penetrated, what kind of contacts have you accumulated?

If you’re having trouble with this part of it — I’ve heard too many women say (erroneously, I might add) “But I don’t know how to do anything that anybody would pay for!” — sit down and make a list. Start with your previous job experience. Then include your hobbies, the kinds of books you like to read, the television shows you like to watch, the subjects or topics that command your attention.

Above all else, resist the temptation to write yourself off as “just a mom”. There is no such animal. You had a life before you had children, and you will continue to have a life once your children are old enough to not really need you anymore. Don’t sell yourself short; there is more to you than being somebody’s mother. As important as your children are, you’re important, too. Don’t ever forget that.

Once you have made your list, you have something to work with. If nothing immediately suggests itself, try one of the many lists of home-based business ideas available here, there and everywhere — such as those offered by Digital Women andMom’s Network Exchange, or by a dozen or more books currently available.

You are also going to have to make some lifestyle decisions here. Once you have begun your home-based working parent adventure, you will have to somehow carve out time and space for doing all the different kinds of work that you have let yourself in for.

“A woman who is planning to pursue a home-based career along with parenting will have a lot to balance,” Ms. Newman points out. “Will she work freelance or 9-5? Will her clients need face time or phone time, and how much? In other words, she’ll need to be realistic about the needs of her business.”

Women who must consider the needs of their children, in addition to the needs of their business, also sometimes forget that they have needs as well. Especially in this age of incredibly rapid innovation and change, we have to be constantly investing in ourselves and our careers, in the form of continuing education, online courses and workshops, networking, reading trade publications and attending trade organization events.

By now, if you are thinking about all this, I hope your head is buzzing with ideas. On the other hand, it’s possible that you’re feeling completely intimidated. There’s a lot more, and a lot more risk, to this WAHMming stuff than you had realized. And it is little scary to embark on this adventure. Working from home is the sort of thing that can feel like the high wire without a safety net. Most of the time, we do have one — after all, we made sure of that financial cushion — but since so much of what we are selling is ourselves, our normal fear of failure is compounded by a fear of rejection.

In her book, Ms. Newman acknowledges that fear and shows us how we can use it to help us reach our goals instead of letting it hold us back. “Some people talk about fear as if it were the enemy, as if fear was a bad thing, but it’s not. Fear is our instinct for self-preservation. It’s telling us that there may be danger in what we’re doing. Rather than ignoring it, we need to examine it and see what it is specifically.”

This is important. Sometimes our fears are caused by what Newman calls a “failure of imagination,” where we find it so difficult to imagine ourselves as successful at this undertaking that we are too afraid to even get started.

But sometimes the fear is quite legitimate. Sometimes the butterflies in our stomachs are telling us that we haven’t been paying enough attention to the preparatory work, and that we aren’t ready yet. Maybe we haven’t given enough consideration to a realistic assessment of how much one person can accomplish in a single day. Or maybe we are poised to sink more money than we can afford, or than is even necessary right at first.

So we need to look at that with as much honesty as we can muster. But the honesty is important; I’ve seen people who told themselves for up to a year and a half that they weren’t ready. They really were, but they were afraid to take the plunge so they spent their time piddling and telling themselves that they were “getting ready” to launch their business.

“Fear can sabotage your best decisions,” says Newman.

Sometimes, too, we fear failure. In fact, failure is the big bugaboo for entrepreneurialism of all stripes, whether it is home-based or not. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons that Ms. Newman attempts to teach us, also included in Getting Unstuck, is how to make failure your friend.

Instead of being paralyzed by you failure, it is possible to use it, to learn from it, so that you will be better at the next home-based career you choose. There’s no real reason to beat up on yourself just because your venture did not pan out. Look at it closely. Understand what went wrong. That alone is valuable information that may eventually pay for itself a thousand times over. According to Ms. Newman, “No prior career is ever wasted.”

There’s a lot to think about before you start your home-based career, but the good news is that it’s easy to know where to begin — and that’s half the battle. Just remember, as you ponder crafting a home-based work/lifestyle for yourself, the answers to all your questions lie within.

About Dawn R. Rivers

Dawn Rivers (formerly Dawn Rivers Baker) is a writer, journalist, publisher, microbusiness expert and advocate, She's written articles for many media outlets including US News & World Report.


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