Start a Home-Based Business that Your Boss Will Never Know About
By Priscilla Y. Huff
Economists predict it will take time to get the economy rolling again; and that once it does some aspects of our work-lives may never be the same again. Job security, career preferences, numbers of hours worked daily, availability of financial resources, retirement plans, global industry trends, and other employment factors will continue to change and be uncertain.
In response to the turbulent economy, and to gain more control of their lives and bring in extra income, many persons are starting part-time businesses while being employed at regular jobs. Utilizing the best mix of organization and time management methods, technology, and business know-how, you, too, can start and operate your own successful home business while working at your day job; and without going beyond business ethics or jeopardizing your current job’s performance. Here are some basic guidelines and management tips to get your business launched today:
Before you start looking for potential customers/clients, you have to lay the foundation for its operations. Some or all of the following start-up steps can be researched during work breaks, lunchtimes, and other slow periods during your workday.
What Business?** – Most businesses ideas are either product- or service-based. If you are recognized as an expert in your field, becoming a professional consultant is another entrepreneurial option you might consider.
Having work, volunteer, or hobby experiences in the industry of the business idea that interests you increases the chance of your business’ success. Home-ventures are also either performed on-site (your home’s office, garage, basement, or other area); in clients’ homes (like cleaning or professional organizing); or with a combination of these.
Make a list of business ideas that interest you, and research information and talk to others in related industries to see if a future market potential exists for your proposed venture(s). Are there enough potential customers ready to hire or purchase from you to justify your starting a particular enterprise? Often businesses that solve problems or that save or make people money tend to have the best success rates. The good news is that no matter where or what your business is there are common operational tasks that you can fit in between your day job’s work as will be pointed out throughout this article.
Visit libraries for home business idea books, attend business expos and search the Internet for small business forums, and business idea web sites for ideas. Visit www.FTC.gov for questions to ask before investing in any home business opportunity.
Plan for Success – Write a basic business plan. It will help you set goals and be your business’s blueprint and operations’ guide. Revise it as your business evolves. Visit www.SCORE.org, the site of the Senior Corps of Retired Executives, that offers online business plan guides; or to find a local office and make an appointment with volunteers who can give you assistance in writing plans. Books and software such as Automate Your Business Plan (www.business-plan.com/) or Business Plan Pro (www.bplans.com – also has 60 sample plans) are also helpful resources.
Marketing Strategy – Your market plan and its strategies are part of your business’s plan. It lists the ways you will find the best potential customers and advertise to them. When you have decided what products and/or services your business will produce, then ask yourself: (1) Who will want these and why? (2) How much are they willing to spend for them? You can determine this through test-marketing, giving people sample products or free trials for services; and then evaluating their feedback. Find free marketing worksheets at http://marketing.about.com/od/marketingworksheets (SEE ALSO in the “Marketing and Sales Section the article, “Low Cost Advertising Plan.”)
Financing Matters – Most services businesses and online businesses are easier and less expensive to start than product-based ventures. Internet businesses are often the simplest because all you need is your idea, a laptop, and a broadband connection to reach your customers. With a side business, you have less pressure to make an immediate profit, giving you time to perfect your business offerings and operations; stay out of debt by reinvesting profits; and finding a sufficient number of customers willing to pay the prices to make your business gainful.
Growing a solid customer base will also increase your chances of obtaining future loans for growth and expansion. Frugality is popular now, so paying down personal debts will free up more money for living and business expenses, enabling you to take your business full-time sooner if you choose. Open a business account to keep personal and business accounts separate.
Your Business’s Name & Structure – Your business’s name can be simply part of your own identity, like “Smith’s Wedding Cakes,” or you can register a fictitious one such as “West-End Specialty Cheesecakes.” Wait until you are certain what your business will be offering before you officially register it, because you may find out that customers prefer a different, related product or service than the ones you first offered. Choose carefully because your business’s name will be an important marketing tool. If you wish to obtain a trademark for your name and/or brand or logo, visit www.USPTO.gov for information. When you decide on a name, purchase the domain for it for a future web site.
In determining your business’s legal structure, many entrepreneurs choose in the beginning to operate as sole proprietorships. Other business forms include partnerships, corporations, or limited liability companies (LLC). Which form you choose depends on your business’s liability potential, whether you hire employees; your business’s goals for growth; tax issues, and other organizational aspects.
Additional Legalities & Ethics – In addition to registering your business and its name, check about the legality of using your home for business; and if there are additional licenses or regulations required to operate. Get referrals from other business owners for lawyers specializing in small/home business issues with whom you can consult whenever you have legal questions. Have them review any confidentiality or employment agreements, or non-compete contracts/clauses you signed, especially if your business will be in the same industry as your job.
By law you cannot solicit any of your employer’s clients until the end of the time stipulated in the contract. Usually you can use your skills and general knowledge in your new business, but not the company’s (for whom you worked) trade secrets such as designs, formulas, or any other protected information. While working as an employee, be sure you do not do anything that is illegal or against company polices or you may be sued, fired, or censored by others in your network.
Be discreet about your business idea and start-up until you are ready to approach your boss to discuss your venture in a professional manner. Depending on the circumstances, your boss may even end up being a client and refer others to you. If your boss asks, do not deny having your business. Your employer’s biggest concerns most likely will be that you are not accomplishing your job’s tasks because of your business’s operations; and/or that you may compete for the same clients.
The main challenge of starting and running a business on the side is how to maintain your same job performance standards in an ethical manner while becoming a successful entrepreneur. For example, you should not use your company’s office supplies for your business. Instead, purchase your own paper if you use the employer’s copier machine, and all other supplies/equipment from the start, to be used solely for your business’s use.
SETTING UP & MANAGING YOUR BUSINESS’s OPERATIONS
Analyze any typical day at your job, and you will find at least an hour or two you can utilize to run your business instead of chatting with co-workers, making personal calls, or engaging in other non-work activities. In maximizing technology devices, avoiding time-wasters and being better-organized, many entrepreneurs not only find free time during work to spend on their businesses, but actually accomplish more for their day jobs and juggling both successfully.
Home Office Set-Up – Back at your home, locate your office in an exclusive area to keep your work and files separate from personal items and to eliminate interruptions. Be thrifty and furnish it with good, used office furniture leased or purchased on sale, through ads or thrift shops. Spend more on the mobile technology and software that will enable your new business ready to work anywhere, including at your day job. If you plan to have in-office client visits, you can upgrade your home office appearance later.
Technology Is The Key – To work successfully on your business at work, you need to create the time and use the best mobile technology you can afford to use during your job. Know, too, that a majority of your business tasks will involve communicating with prospective customers, vendors, and other people related to your business. The less you use any of your job’s office equipment, the less likely you will get in trouble, so here are some tech (and non-tech) essentials you will want to consider buying for your business:
*Home Office Tech – Invest in one of the newer lightweight laptop computers with built-in wireless capability and a business software bundle; a high-speed broadband Internet connection; plus a fax and copy machine. Get a rugged case to take your laptop and other business paraphernalia so you can “grab” and work on the go.
*Cellular Phones-Smartphones – Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) of the nineties are being replaced by “smart” cell phones (convergent devices combining PDA and cell phone functions) like RIM’s Blackberry, Apple’s iphone, Palm’s new Pre, and others. These electronic devices are cameras, digital voice recorders, and mobile/text-messaging phones; plus enable you to store data and notes, access your e-mail, browse the Web, fax via the Internet, and depending on their capabilities, can run any number of apps (software applications). These personal display devices are a must for staying connected to people for your business.
If you have a ground line for your home business number, you can hire a “follow-on service” to your cell/smart phone so you can save time checking voice mail or chasing lost calls.
*Using a Personal Data Assistant (PDA) – Many people still prefer PDAs for their larger screens, as a data backup, their affordability, and their independence from any carrier.
*Paper Day Planner – Not electronic, but many business owners and individuals still like having access to their written (on paper) schedules and information at their fingertips and using pen or pencils to jot down notes.
Research each tech or non-tech device to see which ones best fit your schedule, your business and your wallet.
Web Work – Most of your potential customers and business associates are connected to the Internet or have access to it, so bringing your laptop and/or any electronic device with web access to work will enable you to communicate and do business with them online.
*E-Mail – Set-up a universal free e-mail(s) account for your business. It is the one of the best ways to communicate with your customers and associates from anywhere in the world and is easy to check whenever you have a free moment during your workday. Use your computer, not the one you use at work to keep your e-mail communications private.
*Social Networks – Post brief business updates on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other networking sites, to market and to foster customer relations. Stick to business topics and be professional. Irresponsible comments or photos posted (anywhere) online could harm your business reputation and cause you to lose customers or your day job.
*Web site – A Web presence is more than just a “silent” billboard. Make yours an interactive venue, highlighting your business’s offerings, keeping in contact with your customers or other business owners for support and possible collaboration on projects, and taking online orders. Purchase a domain business name (URL) and start with free-hosting companies that allow you to design your own site like Microsoft Office Live Small Business or use search engines to find others. Keep your site simple and easy to navigate and update often to keep visitors coming back. Use online payment centers for your first orders. As sales increase, you can hire a Web designer for a customized site and to help you add a secure shopping cart program for credit card orders. (visit the Ecommerce channel at www.homebusinessmag.com for more information)
Finding & Maximizing Business Time – Here are some suggestions on how to find and maximize time in your workday.
*Discovering Time: Log your day job’s activities for a week to locate small and larger blocks of time you can devote to your business. Examine break and lunch periods and consider coming in an hour earlier or staying later. Set up a pre-determined schedule to block in business work time, work tasks, as well as time for personal/family time, but be flexible.
*Productivity Tactics: Use short breaks for getting caught up on e-mails and brief calls. Use lunch periods for client meetings, business appointments, and longer phone calls; and commuting time for computer work or phone calls.** Ask business associations or other small business owners about the availability of business conference rooms for lunchtime or after-work meetings. Save complex tasks to complete in your home office in the evenings or on days off.
**Be considerate of others when using your cell phone on public transportation; and obey laws concerning cell phone use while driving.
Here are some additional considerations in running your business around your day job:
* Prevent Burnout – Starting a business while working a regular job and still maintaining a private life, can result in sleep deprivation, lack of focus, and a strain on personal relationships. Discuss your business plans with your family for their feedback and even help or support. Cut-back on non-essential activities; but schedule family/personal time and vacations to have fun and relieve stress.
* Get Help, Organize – Delegate tasks to family, or hire experts and/or other entrepreneurs; or barter/exchanges services with them for duties that you do not have to do (or are qualified for) so you can focus on business duties you do best. Prioritize your personal job and business tasks. Automate as much detail work as possible.
* Plan, Focus – Plan each workday, but stay flexible; and focus your goals on moving your business forward and becoming profitable.
* Concentrate on Customers – Marketing daily is a must with any new venture. Strive to build a steady growth of new customers while satisfying your current customers with excellent offerings and customer service. Thank them with special sales, cards, online coupons, and other expressions of appreciation. Encouraging satisfied customers’ word-of-mouth praise and referrals is one of the most effective marketing strategies you can do.
* Handling Growth – Growing too fast can often lead to business failure. Include a contingent growth sub-plan in your business plan that includes resources and people with whom you can barter or subcontract to help you when needed. If your venture starts getting too busy to handle, especially in seasonal ventures, consider taking accrued days off, vacation time, or even, a period of absence without pay. Though, not all jobs lend themselves to work around a start-up business, more often than not with today’s advances in mobile technology, you will be able to find some time during your work day to research, plan, or complete even simple business tasks so you can get your venture launched. Depending on your customer numbers, it may take several years or more before you can go full-time with your business; or you may prefer keeping it part-time and not have the stress to produce sufficient profits to support you and your family.
In these unpredictable economic times, having a business on the side may be your “back-up” income should an unavoidable job loss occur. More importantly, you will be giving yourself a golden opportunity to start your entrepreneurial “journey” for generally less money and risk, with the potential for a future lucrative home-based business doing work you really enjoy. HBM
Priscilla Y. Huff (www.PYHuff.com) welcomes comments on Twitter: http://Twitter.com/HerHisBizWriter.