A home-based business is any enterprise for which the principal administrative and managerial activities take place within an individual's personal residence. People start home-based business ventures for a wide variety of reasons. For example, some people are forced to leave the corporate world as a result of downsizing or early retirement, while others leave voluntarily out of a desire to be their own boss, to avoid the hassles associated with commuting, or to facilitate caring for children or elderly relatives. Whatever the reason, home-based businesses have become a significant trend in recent years. Once viewed as a way for an unemployed person to make some money until a "real" job came along, home-based businesses are now taken much more seriously. Today, home-based businesses run the gamut from consulting firms and advertising agencies to photography studios and free-lance writing services.
The main driving force behind the growth of home-based businesses is the increasing capability and availability of computer and communications technology. Powerful yet affordable home computer systems equipped with modems allow people to send and receive messages, transfer data, and conduct research from their homes, largely eliminating the need for those employed in such endeavors from having to commute to a place of employment. Similarly, sophisticated software programs offering applications in desktop publishing, database management, financial management, and word processing enable one individual to do the work formerly handled by an entire support staff. In addition, the widespread use of cellular phones, pagers, voice-mail systems, and toll-free telephone numbers has enhanced the ability of home-based business owners to remain connected to the outside business world. Rapid improvements in technology have enabled large numbers of home-based business people to earn the same income they could at a regular jobs while also gaining a number of lifestyle benefits. Another important factor in the growth of home-based businesses is the transformation of the American economy from a product orientation to a service orientation. Since service businesses generally have no need to store inventory or run production machinery, they are less disruptive and more adaptable to a neighborhood environment.
As a result of these and other factors, an estimated 40 million Americans now work from their homes. This number includes employees working from home for a larger employer as well as self-employed. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of home-based business owners are women, who choose this option either because of childcare concerns or because of a perceived glass ceiling limiting their earnings potential in the corporate world. Running a business out of the home offers a number of advantages, including time savings, control over working hours and conditions, independence, and flexibility. Starting a home-based business is also considerably cheaper than starting a business in rented facilities. In addition to saving money on overhead expenses, commuting costs, and wardrobe expenditures, many home-based business owners can deduct a portion of their rent or mortgage interest from their personal income taxes.
There are also several disadvantages to home-based businesses, however, including uncertain income, reduced benefits, isolation, and distractions. In addition, home-based business owners, like other self-employed individuals, must be able to handle all sorts of business-related tasks, like bookkeeping, billing, marketing and sales, and tax compliance. Still, home-based businesses do tend to be more successful than other types of small business ventures. According to the editors of Income Opportunities magazine in their Home Business Handbook, only 20 to 25 percent of home-based businesses fail within five years, compared to a failure rate of over 50 percent for all small business ventures. Several organizations are available to assist people in forming home-based businesses, including the National Association of Home-Based Businesses (www.ameribiz.com), Home Office Association of America (www.hoaa.com), and National Association for the Self-Employed (www.nase.org).
REQUIREMENTS FOR A SUCCESSFUL HOME-BASED BUSINESS
As Paul and Sarah Edwards noted in their book Working from Home, successful home-based business owners are usually good at what they do and enjoy doing it. It is also helpful to be independent, self-sufficient, and flexible. Other keys to success include being able to sell oneself and the business, and staying on top of personal and business finances. Since it is often difficult to associate being at home with working, home-based business people must be able to maintain boundaries between their personal and professional lives. In addition, they require a great deal of self-discipline to overcome the sense of isolation, frequent distractions, and lack of motivation and concentration that commonly affect those working from home.
Formal planning can help ease the transition for a person starting a home-based business. By being aware of the potential pitfalls and creating a plan to overcome them, a home-based business owner can significantly increase his or her chances for success. The main planning tool recommended by experts is a business plan. A formal business plan, which is generally created in anticipation of starting a new business venture, includes a description of the business; a statement of purpose; information about the business's structure, organization, and management; a marketing plan; and a financial plan.
The process of gathering information and writing a business plan helps the entrepreneur take an objective, critical look at the business idea and its chances for success. A home-based business may be related to an individual's previous occupation, but may also be based upon a hobby or the discovery of a unique business opportunity. In any case, the idea should be evaluated with an eye toward market potential and competition. Once the business is up and running, the business plan sets forth goals and standards for management and serves as an operational tool to measure progress. Although there are many ways to start a home-based business—including "moonlighting" while employed full-time, working part-time for an employer and part-time at home, and just taking the plunge—planning is important to all of them.
After creating a plan for the home-based business, the entrepreneur is ready to put the plan in action. One of the earliest steps involves preparing family members and enlisting their support. The loss of a reliable source of income may cause some anxiety or resentment among other members of the household. In addition, the creation of a home office will probably necessitate changes in family members' schedules or lifestyle. Dealing with such issues in advance can help avoid problems later. Another important step is to establish an area of the home as a business office. The most important consideration when choosing a location for a home office is that it allow the entrepreneur room to work comfortably and efficiently without too many distractions. The office should be as physically separate from the living area of the home as possible, and should project an air of professionalism to potential visitors as well as to its occupant.
Other steps in the process of forming a home-based business include selecting a legal structure, filing a fictitious name or "doing business as" statement, and obtaining any needed permits or licenses. The entrepreneur should also evaluate the risks associated with the business venture and make any necessary arrangements for health, life, liability, property, or business interruption insurance. Since it is sometimes difficult for a home-based business to be taken seriously by customers or creditors, it may be helpful to communicate a professional image through stationery and business cards, a separate phone line answered with a formal greeting, and distinct working hours.
OVERCOMING COMMON PROBLEMS
Many people start home-based businesses in the hopes of setting their own work schedules and increasing their free time, but few people realize the careful planning that is required to achieve these goals. In fact, time management is one of the more important challenges a home-based business owner may face. Experts recommend that home-based business owners set up a workable schedule immediately upon starting their ventures in order to establish good habits. In many cases, the limited amount of work available in the early stages of a home-based business's existence may cause the entrepreneur to establish a pattern of running personal errands or watching television during work time. In this way, lethargy and unproductive use of time become ingrained and perpetuate themselves. Instead, downtime that has been reserved for working should be used to market and promote the business.
Once the home-based business gets off the ground, many entrepreneurs tend to go to the opposite extreme and overcommit themselves. In their need to attract clients, they become uncomfortable turning down work. But unlike people who work for a large employer in an outside office, home-based business owners cannot leave their work behind and go home, because home is where their work is. As a result, some entrepreneurs work too many hours and abandon their personal lives, resulting in stress and burnout. Instead, experts recommend that home-based business owners set up realistic work schedules in order to reinforce the boundaries between their personal and business lives. It may be helpful to establish the following day's schedule the previous afternoon and prioritize the activities. The schedule should be realistic and allow for inevitable interruptions. Some experts claim that an important factor in successful time management for home-based business owners is arising early in the morning to get a jump start on work. Others stress the importance of dressing comfortably yet professionally in order to establish a positive psychological state for working. Although these methods do not apply to everyone, it is important for home-based business people to find a pattern that maximizes their productivity and stick with it.
Another common problem faced by those who work from home is isolation. In a standard business environment, people are dealing with co-workers constantly, as well as the noise of ringing phones and running machines. There are also meetings, breaks, and lunch hours that serve to break up the day and provide opportunities for socializing. This contact with other people provides a built-in system of motivation to at least appear busy at work. In contrast, many people who start a home-based business are faced with nothing but a quiet, empty house. Some find it difficult to motivate themselves and succumb to boredom and loneliness. But such isolation does have a positive side: working at home increases productivity by an average of 20 percent, so home-based business owners can often get more work done in less time. Planning is necessary to overcome the negative effects of isolation, however. Experts recommend that home-based business owners schedule interaction with other people on a regular basis, using such means as business meals, outside meetings and appointments, clubs and associations, and networking.
Yet another common problem encountered by home-based business people is frequent distractions that reduce productivity. In fact, distractions are everywhere for people who work from home. When faced with a difficult work task, it sometimes seems far preferable to run the vacuum, clean out a closet, walk the dog, have a snack, take a nap, raid the refrigerator, pull some weeds in the garden, or do any of the myriad other things that need doing around a normal household. In addition, people who work from home lack the motivation that peer pressure can provide in a regular office. They also face spouses and children who demand time and attention, as well as friends and neighbors who call to chat or stop by to ask favors.
To be successful, home-based business owners need to be aware that time-stealing temptations exist and take steps to counteract digressions before they turn into habits. If distractions seem overwhelming, the first step is to analyze the situation. If the problem lies with household chores, eating, or the television, the solution may be to get the distractions out of sight. If the problem involves family members or friends and neighbors, it may be necessary to have a frank discussion or family meeting concerning work time and free time. Options for resolving people conflicts include moving the office to another part of the house, hiring a baby-sitter or arranging for day care, or not taking personal calls during business hours. Ideally, an entrepreneur should set up a daily work schedule, try to work diligently for several hours at a time, and then take a break as a reward.
FINANCIAL AND TAX ASPECTS
Like other forms of self-employment, home-based businesses face a number of challenges relating to financial management and tax compliance. Part of the business plan that is prepared prior to forming a home-based business is a financial plan detailing how much it will cost to begin the new venture and keep it running. After the business has been established, it is vital that the entrepreneur set up a good bookkeeping system to manage cash flow and ensure compliance with tax laws. Bookkeeping systems can be manual or computer based. Experts also recommend that entrepreneurs set up a separate checking account for their home-based businesses in order to better document business expenses. Canceled checks, paid bills, invoices, sales slips, receipts, and other financial documentation should be kept on file in case of an audit. Another important aspect of financial planning for a home-based business is tracking working capital—the difference between current assets (cash, accounts receivable, and inventory) and current liabilities (operating expenses, debts, and taxes)—in order to maintain a realistic picture of where the business stands financially.
Taxes become significantly more complicated with a home-based business. Self-employed persons are allowed to deduct business-related expenses—such as wages paid to others, the cost of professional services, shipping and postage charges, advertising costs, the cost of office supplies and equipment, professional dues and publications, insurance premiums, automobile expenses, and some entertainment and travel costs—from their income taxes, but are also required to pay self-employment taxes. People who work from their homes may be eligible for another tax deduction known as a home office deduction. The home office deduction allows individuals who meet certain criteria to deduct a portion of mortgage interest or rent, depreciation of the space used as an office, utility bills, home insurance costs, and cleaning, repairs, and security costs from their federal income taxes. Although the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has set strict regulations about who qualifies for the deduction, about 1.6 million people claim the deduction each year. According to Gloria Gibbs Marullo in an article for Nation's Business, the savings can be considerable: a sole proprietor living in a $150,000 home stands to save about $2,500 in actual taxes annually.
In general, a home office deduction is allowed if the home office meets at least one of three criteria: 1) the home office is the principal place of business; 2) the home office is the place where the business owner meets with clients and customers as part of the normal business day; or 3) the place of business is a separate structure on the property, but is not attached to the house or residence. The deduction is figured on the size of the home office as a percentage of the total house or residence. For example, if the total house size is 2,400 square feet and the home office is 240 square feet, 10 percent of the total house is considered used for business. That would allow the business owner to deduct 10 percent of the household's costs for electricity, real estate taxes, mortgage interest, insurance, repairs, etc. as business expenses.
For many years, the IRS has followed a very strict interpretation of "principal place of business," which prevented some self-employed persons—such as an accountant who maintained a home office but also spent a great deal of time visiting clients—from claiming the deduction. But in July 1997, responding to the concerns of small business advocates, the U.S. Congress passed a tax bill that redefined an individual's "principal place of business" to include a home office that meets the following two criteria: 1) it is used to conduct the management or administrative activities of a business; and 2) it is the only place in which the small business owner conducts those management or administrative activities. When this change became effective on January 1, 1999, it was expected to enable many home-based business owners who also perform services outside of their homes to claim the home office deduction.
The home office deduction may become even easier to use in the near future. Colleen DeBaise wrote, in an early 2006 article entitled "Locking In The Home-Office Deduction," about efforts being made to simplify this tax deduction. She wrote, "The National Association for the Self-Employed, a small-business group in Washington, D.C., supports a simplified, standard deduction to ease the burden on home-based businesses. And perhaps someday, sweet relief will be granted: Two bills introduced in 2005 contain language for a standard home-office deduction, although neither has passed. One of the bills, the Small Employer Tax Relief Act of 2005, specifically calls for a standard home-office deduction of $2,500'¦. In the meantime, small-business owners have little choice other than to muddle through the form—or hire a tax adviser for help."
As home-based businesses continue to play an important role in our economy, institutions and regulations will adapt to working well with these businesses and their unique support requirements.
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