SOHO Balance

Sometimes one SOHO office isn't enough

Peggy Mackinnon Inc. has two separate offices in two states but just one employee and one boss -- both of whom are Peggy Mackinnon.

Mackinnon, a veteran public-relations consultant, represents up to two dozen clients from her primary home in Denver and from her vacation home in southern California. Thanks to the Internet, lots of telephone lines, and similar home-office setups in each location, Mackinnon says that it's a breeze to move her business back and forth between the Rockies and the Pacific coast.

Regular clients know that Mackinnon wings her way between the two abodes, and, she says, most don't care. "They know they can always reach me," she says. "And if I have something I'm working on, they know I'm going to work on it, whether I'm here or there."

Mackinnon didn't initially view herself as the work-at-home type. Previously, she had handled clients for PR powerhouse Hill & Knowlton, spending half of her 15 years at the company as manager of its Denver office. In 1996, when Hill & Knowlton closed that office, Mackinnon decided to go it alone for a while. She set up shop at home and, with her former employer's blessing, continued representing many of the same accounts. Initially, she figured she'd find an in-house corporate PR job. "I never intended to do this indefinitely," she says. But early on, she realized she liked having the freedom and flexibility. "And the commute was wonderful," she says. "So I thought, 'Wait a minute. What's wrong with this picture?' " The answer: absolutely nothing.

For the first few years, Mackinnon worked strictly out of her Denver home's finished basement, where her spacious office overlooks a rock garden. She gradually built a diverse portfolio of clients ranging from a century-old Denver hotel to a small New York-based airline to an organic dairy. Meanwhile, she bought relatively standard equipment for a home-office setup, splurging on one item: she spent $2,500 for her own Xerox copier with a three-year on-site warranty instead of using the less powerful, home-office copiers available for much less. "I felt I had to do that to give my clients the same level of service I gave them at Hill & Knowlton," she says.

Mackinnon added her second office a couple of years ago, after she and her husband, Ian, who co-owns a commercial real estate consulting and appraisal firm, bought a vacation condo in Laguna Niguel, Calif., about 90 minutes by air from Denver. "Because we both have our own businesses, we have a fair amount of flexibility," Mackinnon says. "We'll see the special last-minute fares on Wednesday and say, 'Want to go this weekend?' We just take what we have on our backs and a little carry-on luggage. Our clothes are there. Our toothbrushes are there. And my office is there."

Mackinnon's first priority for the new condo -- after buying a refrigerator and a bed -- was creating an office that mirrored her Colorado workspace. While that might seem strange for what is, after all, supposed to be a vacation home, Mackinnon viewed it as an absolute necessity. "I knew if I was going to be able to spend any time there, I was going to have to have the office there," she says. She outfitted it with some new hardware, some equipment moved from the Denver office, and all new furniture.

When shuttling between homes, Mackinnon simply transfers documents for current projects onto disks and carries them along. But sometimes she'll realize she needs something that's stored on her other hard drive, about 1,000 miles away. It could be something she forgot or a document she wrote six months earlier that a client unexpectedly wants.

In those cases, she's been glad she installed Symantec's pcAnywhere software, which lets her two desktop computers talk to each other. The system works like this: As long as both computers are turned on and plugged into phone lines, she simply uses one to dial into the other. Once they're connected, she's able to view the distant machine's desktop. Then she can open documents and work on them remotely or transfer them to the local machine. Keeping the computers connected is no problem because she has multiple phone lines in both locations; the only cost is for the long-distance telephone call.

Home-office practitioners sometimes complain of isolation, but Mackinnon says it hasn't been an issue. She frequently visits companies she represents, and she occasionally hosts business gatherings in her Denver home. (At one such event, a client looked around her basement office and quipped, "Welcome to the world headquarters of Peggy Mackinnon Inc.") She also meets regularly with several other solo practitioners she hires to help with various accounts.

Mackinnon's husband, whose business employs about 13 people, occasionally works at home. But unlike his wife, he doesn't have a dedicated office there. "He uses the dining-room table," Peggy says. And he rarely uses his wife's high-tech equipment; instead, he writes, reads reports, or makes telephone calls. However, he prefers to spend most of his working hours at his company's office nearby, where he can access documents, meet with colleagues, and make use of support staff. In addition, he says, he often finds it easier to concentrate in an office environment.

As the dichotomy in her own household indicates, Peggy Mackinnon says, working at home isn't for everyone. "You really do need a fair amount of discipline," she says. "I'm a very focused person. I go to the office, and I'm at the office" -- no matter where that office is.

Observers might reasonably wonder whether -- surrounded by fully equipped, utterly connected offices in both her homes -- Mackinnon is perhaps too disciplined. She acknowledges that she works long and hard. "I will do whatever I need to do to service my clients. If that's nights and weekends sometimes, it's nights and weekends sometimes," she says. And "nights" can mean into the wee hours. Clients who don't know she works at home sometimes call to leave late-night messages, assuming they're reaching voice mail at an empty office, when, in fact, they may be awakening the Mackinnons at home.

But if Mackinnon doesn't really need to work on a particular day, she simply doesn't. "I never did that at Hill & Knowlton," she says. "I was the boss, so I was usually the first in and the last to leave. But working at home has changed my lifestyle. If I don't have work, I won't just sit at my desk." Her husband concurs. "She has a very good attitude toward business," he says. "She's not one of these workaholics who works just for the sake of working. She doesn't do busywork."

And Mackinnon makes time for the health club, weekend movies, cross-country-skiing trips, and occasional purely unplugged vacations. "We took nearly three weeks off and went to Africa a couple of years ago," she says. "That's a place where I couldn't get E-mail, I couldn't get voice mail, I couldn't get anything."

Besides giving her more flexibility, Mackinnon's working arrangement apparently hasn't hurt the bottom line. Her business brings in between $200,000 and $300,000 in annual revenues. Although she declines to provide salary specifics, she says she's actually earning more than she did in her corporate life. And, she muses, "to work less hard and make more money is not a bad situation to be in."

Mackinnon's SOHO Essentials

  • Colorado office: Xerox 214DC copier with on-site warranty, $2,500. Dell Dimension 4100 computer with 17-inch monitor, $2,286. NEC SuperScript 870 laser printer, $399. Canon BJC-210 color inkjet printer that came free with an old computer. Brother MFC-4350 multifunction fax, printer, and copier machine, $399. Postage-meter rental, $19 a month plus supplies and postage. Vintage IBM Selectric II typewriter, used only for typing labels, purchased from previous employer. Paper cutter. Decor includes a jade bonsai tree from San Francisco's Chinatown, a miniature roll of tar paper from a roofing-systems client, and a spear and two boomerangs from Australia, where Mackinnon once lived.
  • California office: Compaq Presario desktop computer, transferred from Colorado office, originally $2,000. Brother MFC-4350 combo fax, printer, and copier, $399.
  • Mobile computing: Palm Vx handheld, $400. Old Compaq laptop, $2,000.
  • Telecom: Three phone lines in Colorado with voice-mail service, $90 a month. Two phone lines in California, $25 a month. Motorola StarTac mobile phone with Verizon Wireless service, $55 a month for 400 minutes.
  • Internet: EarthLink for both locations, $20 a month.
  • Outsourcing: Computer repair and maintenance, $30 an hour as needed.
  • Desktop: Symantec pcAnywhere remote-computing software, $179 new plus $80 for upgrade. Web-based subscription to Lexis-Nexis information service, $50 a month plus usage fees.

Q+A with Edward Hallowell

Learning to Focus from Those Who Can't

One of the greatest challenges SOHO entrepreneurs face is keeping their focus. You know that working from home is the best thing for you, but how do you do it without getting distracted? Well, Edward Hallowell wrote the book on distraction, or more specifically on how to manage it. In 1995, Hallowell and coauthor John J. Ratey wrote Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood to Adulthood, a book that single-handedly thrust ADD into the national consciousness. Inc. Technology contributor Alessandra Bianchi recently spoke with Hallowell about the lessons that ADD can teach the home-based entrepreneur.

Inc.: What can the average SOHO worker learn from your patients with ADD?

Hallowell: That there's really no one best way to get organized. Some people do much better in a busy, distraction-filled environment. Oddly enough, they're able to pay attention much better that way. For them a chaotic home office is just what they need. They shouldn't worry about straightening it up. They should keep their little nest amid the chaos, whereas others really do need an orderly desk and an orderly bookshelf.

Inc.: How do you resist the urge to procrastinate?

Hallowell: It's a wonderful freedom to have a home office, but you have to beware. It's sort of like high school kids going off to college. Suddenly, there's no supervision, and there's a tendency to let yourself go if you're not careful. A lot of people who work at home spend their entire day just doing their E-mail, going down to the kitchen and getting involved in what's going on at home, or going out on errands. It's just an elaborate way of procrastinating. Since there is no supervisor, you can sort of rationalize, Oh, I need to do this, and I need to do that. And then you find you haven't done what you really needed to do. So you want to set yourself up as your own supervisor and be at least as hard on yourself as you would be on someone else.

Inc.: What about loneliness?

Hallowell: When you leave a corporate office, one of the things that you give up -- and that you may be glad to give up -- is other people. But you have to be very careful not to go through your whole day without any positive human contact. Try to talk with someone every three or four hours. It refreshes your mind, reinvigorates you, restores your motivation, and gives you new ideas. You can get it by going down and getting the mail and saying hello to your neighbor, by walking down to the local bakery and getting a loaf of bread. It doesn't have to be a lengthy conversation, just some human contact so it's not just you, the computer screen, your desk blotter, and the telephone.

Inc.: Is ADD more common than we think? Your advice seems to apply to practically everyone.

Hallowell: Absolutely. I came to all of this by specializing in people who have particular trouble in focusing, but I've discovered it's good for everybody. I say to folks that attention deficit disorder and a severe case of modern life are indistinguishable to the untrained eye. The target symptoms are the same. Everybody is too busy with too many demands. They're ready to scream, throw up their hands, kick the trash can, and lock themselves in the bathroom. So another thing to remember is to keep your sense of humor. If you're getting into a funk because you're alone at home, call up a friend and just laugh about it instead of stewing. And remember, we're all kind of in it together these days. Don't think that there's someone out there who's just so efficient -- the Martha Stewart of home offices -- because she doesn't really exist. And if she does, she's disgusting.

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