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There's no place like a home office

Do try this at home. Work, that is.

Home-based businesses are no longer the novelty they once were. Today, approximately 21.8 million businesses are in the home, according to International Data Corp. The Framingham, Mass., market research firm expects the number to swell to 25 million by 2003.

So what work are all these companies doing?

Almost anything goes
"Everything from A to virtually Z can be a business in the home," says Paul Edwards, home office expert and co-author, with his wife Sarah, of The Best Home Businesses for the 21st Century.

The Edwards suggest almost limitless opportunities, listing home-based business ideas from "Accident Investigator" to "Travel Agency" on their Web site. They also devote a section to home-based franchises.

Exceptions to the operate-in-the-home rule are heavy-duty manufacturers -- most local zoning boards prohibit such companies -- or businesses that require a lot of face-to-face time. These can't be done in the home, or at least, not easily.

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But businesses that require a lot of personal interaction, such as meetings between you and the client, still can be done from the home with a little planning. Lisa Kanarek, Dallas-based author of 101 Home Office Success Secrets, notes that interactivity works from home as long as your residence is properly equipped and you and your clients are in the same geographical area.

"If you have a business that requires constant meetings, your home office has to be conducive for meetings, ideally separate from your home, and soundproof from your family," says Kanarek, who also operates the HomeOfficeLife Web site.

Technology opens the home-office door
Even without special home-office accommodations, technology has helped move jobs once considered only suitable for traditional offices into residential areas. Phones, faxes, computers, modems and the Internet now are work-at-home staples, notes Jeff Zbar, a home-office expert based in Coral Gables, Fla.

"One of the hottest jobs right now is virtual assistants that handle bookkeeping and scheduling for clients," says Zbar, who writes on home based companies and also runs a consulting firm Goin' Soho that works with corporations.

"It used to be an on-site position," Zbar notes, "but now with the advent of technology you can run operations from the home."

Four home-business categories
Paul Edwards divides possible home businesses into four categories: service, product, high-tech or low-tech.

Just about any service business, from accounting to public relations, can be done in the home.

Product-oriented companies include mail-order firms. Here, your company gets the actual manufacturer to drop-ship the product so your bedroom closet doesn't end up being your firm's inventory warehouse.

High-tech home-based businesses on Edwards' list includes Web designers or computer consultants.

Low-tech companies can be mobile firms, such as a massage therapist who works out of home and makes house calls to clients.

Heart, head and market
Not sure which is the pick of the home-office litter for you? Zbar recommends researching what you're going to do before you strike out on your own.

"You don't want to quit your job on Friday and then start work on Monday," he says.

Zbar also recommends going over three things to figure out what business best suits you: heart, head, and market.

Heart is what you like to do. What personally interests you? What are you passionate about? Whether it's water skiing or computers, it doesn't matter. What does matter is what you care about, because that's what you'll be willing to invest your time and money in.

Head is the skills you possess. Most would-be entrepreneurs fair best when they select a business in which they have expertise and know-how. This isn't true 100 percent of the time, but is a good general rule to follow.

Market is whether there is a demand for what you want to do. Maybe you enjoy making apparel for ferrets, but if ferret owners don't have a fetish for dressing up their pets, this probably would not be a profitable enterprise.

Zbar recalls a woman he met in Bismarck, N.D. She loved taking photos and was also an accomplished equestrian. She combined the two loves into one business: equestrian photographer. She takes pictures of horses and riders at shows and sells them as mementos.

What's great about the equestrian photographer is not only how she created a job that she loves doing, but that she simultaneously carved out a profitable business niche. Wedding photographers are a dime a dozen. Equestrian photographers are a rarer breed, and a market with more maneuvering room since it's less crowded.

Convenience companies and technological twists
One easy way to turn a same-old home business idea into something innovative is to make it mobile. Edwards calls it riding the "convenience" boom. Veterinarians, pet groomers, massage therapists and hair stylists can all give their businesses a makeover by putting them on the road to customers.

Also, don't overlook how technology is creating opportunities. Smart graphic designers latched onto the Internet boom early and acquired the required skills so they could transition over to Web design.

Ask yourself how technology is changing the type of work you want to do or how it could give a new twist to an old business. The answer could help you could transform a has-been concept into a hot business opportunity.

And before you take the leap into a home-based business, Zbar suggests, consider doing it part-time before going entirely solo. That way you can work out the kinks and decide whether it's the life for you before you give up your regular job.

Jenny C. McCune is a contributing editor based in Montana.

-- Posted: July 30, 2001

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