While you're doing all the checking necessary to start a home-based business - cell phone networks, zoning laws and the like - make sure you check out your head as well.
That remark isn't as flip as it might sound. It may surprise you, but your inner workings may play just as large a role in the success of your business as the best-laid business plan.
The Big Five
Trying to decide whether you're suited to operate a home business can often boil down to five important criteria. If you're thinking about striking out on your own, you might benefit from asking yourself the following questions:
1. Can you set boundaries with friends and family?
One of the biggest challenges facing home business owners is the problematic mass of people who "just don't get it." (Unfortunately, that mass almost always includes family members.) To them, working from home is a sort of a nod-and-a-wink dodge - since you're home, you're not really working. You're going to the movies, scarfing potato skins and sinking into the couch for yet another episode of "As All My General Hospitals Turn." After all, you've got nothing but time on your hands, right? So you're available whenever someone needs you, right?
You need sufficient confidence in what you're doing - and the mettle to express it plainly - to make certain that those around you take your home business seriously. Don't expect respectful boundaries from friends and family if you don't establish them in your own mind first.
"You have to have the strength of mind to say what the rules are," says Jeff Zbar, author of "Home Office Know-How" (Upstart Pub. Co., 1998). "You need your own Magna Carta of what the home office is and how it operates."
I can attest to a need for ground rules. When my children were very young, they thought they had carte blanche in terms of waddling into my office whenever the mood hit them, more often than not their Pampers bursting with the calling card of their youth. However, simple guidelines - if the door's closed, Daddy's at work, for instance - helped them understand where the money came from for all those Barbies and Pokemon game cartridges.
Being firm about when you are and aren't available spills over into other characteristics that jibe with a work-at-home mentality. In particular, the ability to set some rules before problems crop up means you can be proactive. And whether they're scouring for new prospects or creating a first-rate business plan, successful home workers thrive on action rather than reaction.
"It always pays to be proactive in whatever you happen to be doing," says Zbar. "Reacting to problems after they occur can only aggravate pressure that's already there."
2. Can you run your own social life and work alone?
If you're planning to work from home, you'll need to get proactive - even aggressive - about creating a social life. While an office environment carries built-in coffee breaks, lunches or beers after work, workplace friendships often peter out if those easy get-togethers are eliminated. So, unless you're interested in becoming a world-class home-office hermit, that means striking out on your own to find new friends and acquaintances.
"It's amazing how many office friendships end when you don't have the same boss to complain about anymore," says Steven D. Strauss, author of "The Unofficial Guide to Starting a Home-Based Business" (Hungry Minds, Inc., 2000). "That means you need to find people with whom you have something in common. And that can mean going to professional groups, the chamber of commerce or other functions."
Here's one way to investigate the social element: While you're still working in an office, avoid social interactions that come about just because you're surrounded by coworkers. Instead, try setting up social gatherings more formally, by phone, e-mail or other means. You should probably try also to meet some new people, even if it's only by attending a town meeting or a professionals' forum. If you don't mind having to take those extra steps to arrange a coffee rendezvous and rounds of golf, you'll likely do fine with the social constraints of a home office.
And while you're checking out your sense of social independence, you should pay attention to other aspects of office interactions. While many employees can do happily without the social niceties of the office, giving up the competitive environment that many workplaces foster may prove more difficult. As such, salespeople who thrive on knowing they've bested their colleagues in that month's sales figures may feel let down by the autonomy - and isolation - of a home office. So, if you're still at work, try keeping your sales records to yourself for a while. If it puts you on a slow burn, you may roast outright in a home office.
3. Can you be flexible, yet stay on track?
Of course, the ideal home business owner shouldn't be compulsively rigid, and without spontaneity. Far from it: If a home business is to succeed, the owner had better be flexible. Whether it's a last-minute change in a project that needs immediate attention, or your son's softball game taking out the better part of an afternoon's work, it pays to be able to roll with the punches when necessary.
"You have to be very pliable with what's going on around you, just as when somebody calls and asks for a last minute rewrite-you have to be comfortable with that," Zbar says. "It works with your family too. If you want to go watch your kid play ice hockey during the day, you have to accept that you may have to work late tonight."
"So which is it?" you're asking. Do I stick with firm ground rules or write my schedule in erasable pencil? The answer: If you have a flexible focus on what you're doing, you'll likely establish the right balance. Generally, the focus needs to be on the economics of your decision to work from home. Put another way: Spending more time with your family may be a pleasant side benefit of working out of home, but it should never be the primary reason for doing so. That will likely spell failure and, ultimately, a return to the workaday world outside.
One way to gauge your ability to balance business and the natural intrusions of home life is to bring work home from the office. See how well you stick to your guns. If you're able to work productively and in spite of some interruptions, that discipline likely will carry over to a home-based business. But, if attempts to hammer out reports consistently give way to trips to the batting cage and ice cream, with no sense that you're bending as need be but staying on track, think twice before trying to do it full time.
4. Are you willing to learn how to run your business?
Discipline that's flexible and open to change should carry over to the varied skills you'll need and responsibilities you'll face when you own your own shop. If you can nail down some rudimentary ability with tasks you've never before had to deal with (accounting, record keeping, filing business taxes and the like), the mercurial role you'll play in a home-based business could be a good fit.
On the other hand, if the notion of churning out balance sheets and quarterly tax reports make you pine for your cubicle back at the office, think carefully about setting off on your own. It's one thing to balk a bit at getting a handle on such responsibilities. If you feel like you're biting a really hard bullet, learning unpleasant tasks may not be worth the aggravation.
"A great many things having to do with running a home-based business are learned behavior," says Zbar, "but you really have to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to it. You can't say 'I could never do that.' Well, that's what my kids said about riding a bike until the day they went out and just did it."
Fortunately, there's plenty of help available these days - and that doesn't mean hiring someone to do the work for you. Most recently, help comes in the form of affordable, Web-based software designed with small businesses in mind. These services provide online accounting, invoicing and financial management tools that you are really quite easy to use and that you can share securely with an accountant.
5. Can you remain optimistic and take care of yourself?
It may sound Pollyanish to some, but an optimistic outlook is a powerful tool for a home business owner. Granted, home-based businesses that thrive don't start each day with a stirring chorus of "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow," but their owners also don't spiral into the depths of despair with every setback. If nothing else, make sure you plan an adequate time frame - a couple of years, at least - to get your home business going in a consistently positive direction.
An overriding awareness that not everything is going to be hitting on all cylinders all the time also applies to you as a home business owner. While many corporate settings dictate when employees may take vacation time (often during slow holiday periods or summer months), a home worker has the freedom to choose down time whenever the mood hits. But don't take that freedom lightly. With the strenuous work schedule maintained by many home businesses, it's important to realize when you need a break to recharge your batteries.
Once more, it's possible to gauge this element of running a home business while you're still working for someone else. Try taking a couple of days off purely for R & R. If it's rejuvenating, you may know yourself well enough to realize when downtime is needed. But, if time off only leads to guilt and thoughts that bring you back to all the work going unattended, carrying that mindset into a home business might only lead to frustration and, possibly, a complete burnout.
Here's another aspect of "taking care of business" that you can learn, just as you can learn how to create invoices and set up tax payments. If you are willing to take a glass-half-full attitude, and you can train yourself to balance work and rest, however lopsidedly, you'll be walking down the road to entrepreneurial success.