SOHO Balance

Zachary and Laura Durst, ages 13 and 10, know what the red scarf on the doorknob means. It means: "Mom is on the phone. Do not interrupt her unless one of you needs a tourniquet."

Mom, a.k.a. Christine Durst, is cofounder of Staffcentrix, an online network of "virtual assistants," or soloists who provide business-support services. Durst works out of a ground-floor room in her Woodstock, Conn., home. Her office door, which she keeps open most of the time, is a symbol of her philosophy of managing both a family and a start-up. She believes that exposing her children to the business -- letting them run the postage meter, say -- makes them feel like part of the action. Her theory is that they won't resent the company so much if they understand it. And just as she reserved the word no for the strictly verboten when her kids were little, she reserves the red scarf for only the most important business calls.

Closer to the other extreme on the home-office-parenting continuum is Art Berg. Unlike Durst, Berg keeps the door to his office closed at all times -- even when he's not in it, which happens frequently. If he's not on the road traveling, he's usually spending time with his daughter, McKenzie, 10, and his son, Dalton, 7.

Berg runs two companies from his Highland, Utah, home: his motivational-speaking practice, Invictus Communications, and a scheduling Web site for other professionals, eSpeakers.com. Together the two businesses bring in combined revenues of some $3 million. Berg's office teems with technology: seven networked computers, four servers, and a T1 Internet connection. He employs two office-support staffers to help him deal with it all. "It's kind of cramped," he says about his work space, which also serves as a gallery for his numerous trophies. (Berg, who is paralyzed from the chest down, set a world record in a 325-mile wheelchair race in 1993.)

Berg believes in giving his undivided attention to either the business or the kids -- one or the other, one at a time. "It's like Gandhi's philosophy: 'Wherever you are, just be there," he says. He does most of his work when he's on the road -- which is about half the year. "I rarely even eat a meal on a plane," he says. Instead he uses that time to catch up on the 50-plus E-mail messages he receives daily. "I spend my time exclusively with my children when I get home," he says.

Open-door policy, closed-door code -- there's more than one way to grow a family and a company at the same address. Some soloists, like Chris Durst, layer their work and family responsibilities throughout the day like peanut butter and jelly. Other entrepreneurs, like Art Berg, take an oil-and-water approach. The key, experts say, is to make sure your strategy is working for you and your kids. "There is no magic rule," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, in New York City, and author of Ask the Children: The Breakthrough Study That Reveals How to Succeed at Work and Parenting.

Galinsky surveyed more than 1,000 children aged 8 to 18 and some 600 parents who worked from home or from traditional offices. What she found was that having a parent who worked from home was not in itself any better, or worse, for kids. "You may think that simply being there is all that matters," Galinsky says, but it's not that easy. For example, kids whose mothers worked at home reported that they spent slightly more time together on weekdays than kids whose moms worked outside the home. But when dads stayed home, kids reported that their time together was often interrupted by work. And both fathers and mothers thought their jobs interfered with their parenting more when they worked from home. Bottom line: whether your office is a cozy breakfast nook or a gray-carpeted skyscraper suite, both your work and your kids need your attention. "It's how you manage it that makes the biggest difference," Galinsky says.

Chris Durst manages the competing demands of her real offspring and her newborn business in classic multitasking mode. She and her business partner, Michael Haaren -- who works from his home, in McLean, Va., and has a baby daughter, Jazz -- do conference calls to conduct mentoring sessions with clients. All the while, Durst and Haaren carry on a subdialogue over Yahoo Messenger. ("Do you have that information? Can you fax it to the client?") As Durst clatters away on her keyboard, headset clamped to her ear, her kids are never far from her mind. Among the piles of invoices and business cards on her desk lie Laura's hairbrush and a note from Zachary's teacher. When she went to Washington, D.C., to speak to people at the U.S. Department of Defense about portable careers for military spouses, she picked up Pentagon pencils for her kids and their classmates. "I've kept them involved, so they feel they are part of something really big," she says.

Durst's all-access approach has given her kids a new perspective on work and the value of money. Most children, Durst says, are accustomed to having things just materialize -- like that CD they want so desperately. "I know my children don't say 'Can I have ... ' nearly as often as other children do," she says. "They know I'll have to put more time into the business to make each of those things come true for them."

An interesting contrast to Durst's juggling act is Art Berg's desire, and ability, to compartmentalize. But work and family weren't always so separate for him. A few years ago, when his kids were still small enough to stay home all day and bug him, Berg was going bananas. "I thought, 'Why do they keep interrupting me? Why don't they understand that I'm working?' I realized that the children were not an interruption to my business. My business was an interruption to my children."

Berg decided that "balance" was a mythical ideal. "When people are at work, they wish they were at home," he says. "When they're at home, they wish they were on vacation, and when they're on vacation, they bring work." Instead of balance, Berg thought, he should be aiming for focus, giving his undivided attention to the task at hand. For example, he removes his watch when he's with his children. That way, he says, every time he looks at his wrist, "it's a reminder that it doesn't matter what time it is."

Berg admits he's slipped a few times in his resolve. Once, while sitting in on his kids' karate class, he couldn't help hunkering over his new iPaq PDA to check his schedule and E-mail. "My son walked over and said, 'Dad, if you're going to do that, you might as well not even be here.' I said, 'You're right," Berg recalls. But he manages to sound simultaneously philosophical and practical when examining his predicament. "Every day I make choices," he says. "I will always have more ideas than time. You do what's urgent, what's critical, and let everything else go."

Both Durst and Berg have found a way to work that works for them. But there are as many strategies as there are home-office entrepreneurs -- which is to say, millions. However, there is one pitfall with near-universal applicability, experts say. The effort to be Supermom or Superdad and Super-CEO at the same time can diminish an equally important role: that of being someone's spouse.

Berg and his wife, Dallas, seem to be managing just fine on that score. "We date often," he says. "We leave little love notes for each other everywhere. And when I'm on the road, we talk at least two or three times daily -- even for just a few minutes." Durst and her husband have developed their own strategies. "Jeff is not as entrepreneurially minded as I am, and we'll both admit that it's caused some rough patches in our marriage. The best way to make it work is to communicate -- and sometimes," she adds, "to close the office door on the weekend and pretend there's nothing but a black hole behind it."

There it is again -- the door. It's a very powerful thing. Use it responsibly.


Durst's SOHO Essentials

  • Office: Dell computer, $2,000. Used HP laser printer, $250. Xerox printer/copier/fax machine, $400. A banner from her daughter's third-grade class that reads (in third-grade-ese) "Congragulations."
  • Telecom: A GE two-line phone with hold, mute, and conferencing, $100. Telco voice mail, $6.50 a month.
  • Internet: Two dial-up accounts (in case one goes down), $20 a month for each.
  • Outsourcing: Web-site hosting from Interland, $850 a quarter.
  • Desktop: Yahoo Messenger and Yahoo Calendar, free.

Berg's SOHO Essentials

  • Office: Seven computers, four servers, and two printers (including a $2,500 color laser printer). A 100Mb Ethernet plus a $1,000 wireless network connection for his laptop.
  • Telecom: Six business phone lines with voice mail on a PC-based phone system that cost $12,000 six years ago. A dedicated fax line. When he's traveling, he uses eFax.com, $10 a month.
  • Internet: T1 line, $950 a month.
  • Outsourcing: Berg outsources al-most everything, from graphic design to accounting. His IT-department function, for example, is outsourced to Intralinks Corp., $800 a month.
  • Desktop: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 5.0 speech-recognition software. Age of Empires II, a strategy game.

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