We're Outta Here
A domestic tale in which our heroine and her husband--who launched their business at home--finally find happiness by getting the hell out of the house
In 1997, in a reversal from the year before, more businesses were started at home than at commercial sites. The tally was 705,000 to 610,000. (In 1996 commercial-site-based start-ups outnumbered home-based ones by 750,000 to 587,000.) No doubt some of those home-based founders will repair to out-of-the-house digs once their businesses begin to feel established. Others, though, may be thinking that running a company from the comfort of the spare bedroom (or maybe even the occupied bedroom) is the perfect recipe for successfully blending professional life with personal life. And to them Ricka Robb Kohnstamm has this to say: Think again. Kohnstamm and her husband, Josh, head up Kohnstamm Communications Inc., an eight-employee public-relations firm in St. Paul, Minn. Until last year they ran their business from home. Now they don't. We'll let Ricka Kohnstamm explain why:
The biggest myth about working at home is that it's near Nirvana: a life of soap operas, casual phone calls, and endless snacks interrupted only by brief bouts of work. The reality is far more strenuous. Juggling the needs of more than a dozen clients over the hum of the washing machine results in an all-consuming, hectic work life. The demands of both life and livelihood are multiplied when they're under the same roof. As we discovered, working at home actually has the potential to increase rather than reduce stress.
But home is where we began. Up to a point, public-relations work--arranging broadcast and print-media interviews for our clients--can be done quite effectively from a home office. Because the arrangement minimized overhead, we were able to grow our business by as much as 75% a year by offering clients unexpected value for their money. And even as we added interns, employees, and all the concerns that come along with managing a payroll, working from our home seldom hampered our ability to please customers. True, our location occasionally disqualified us from consideration for a job. (One persnickety potential client insisted on inspecting our office before hiring us.) And I'll never live down the time I finally got an important national business writer on the phone--just when my child arrived home from school and burst through the door, screaming. But those situations were rare.
For us, the real cost of having a home-based business wasn't professional--it was the personal toll it took. We have three young children. With the business and the family under one roof, we lived in an endless twilight zone in which work and family responsibilities overlapped, and nothing belonged fully to either the work or the family world. Perhaps that's how any entrepreneur feels, but it's worse when your business headquarters is your house. My 9-year-old son is already a confirmed entrepreneur because of years of direct contact with our business affairs. He has worried about our clients since he was barely able to talk. And that's just one example of the stress that spreads to other family members in an at-home business.
Employees and interns walked by the morning cereal bowls and tripped over board games on their way to our garden-level office. They saw the kids heading out the door for school, and they saw the kids returning from school well before the workday ended. Through it all, our staff probably got to know more about our kids and us than they wanted to. And vice versa.
I found that I began to resent it when the phone rang after hours or when well-intentioned staffers came by on weekends. When, finally, our front steps all but collapsed under the constant flow of delivery people, we briefly considered posting a sign directing people, "Deliver goods in rear." Instead, we repaired the front steps. And decided we wanted our home back.
In June 1997 we moved our company into an elegantly simple, 1,000-square-foot office downtown. It feels great! At home it's as though we built an addition onto our house--an instant family room. The desks, people, and computers are gone, and I can get some much-needed perspective when I come home. Last summer we were able for the first time to take a summer vacation without worrying about people entering the house while we were gone.
At work, the move has produced some subtle but important changes. The psychological effects of the new, professional environment seem to have improved our team's performance. We have the space to invest in sensible equipment and technology, which have already enhanced our productivity. And though the atmosphere of a home-based business was comforting, there is also something satisfying about having an uninterrupted dinner with the kids without the usual early-evening call from a reporter or a client.
Oh, and the distance created by our business's departure from the house has enabled our son to sleep just a little more soundly. There's a division between work and home.
Do I miss those years of heading downstairs to the basement office at 4 a.m. to meet deadlines? Or the days when my infant daughter found a regular place under my desk--my foot bobbing her chair--while I talked business on the phone? Yes. But not very much.