Brave New World

Remember when embarrassed home-based entrepreneurs played background tapes of fake office noise when talking business on the phone?

Don't ask, don't tell. if you think those watchwords apply only to a soldier's sexual predilection, then you're not the longtime owner of a home-based business. For years, entrepreneurs who worked out of their homes suffered under a cloud of prejudice that branded them as second-class operators solely because of where they hung (or, in most cases, did not officially hang) their shingle.

Picture 21 Cottontail Place or 78 Fairway View on company letterhead or on a business card and you understand why many start-up owners who are saddled with such addresses trudge off to the post office to pick up their mail. But the truth is, countless home-based entrepreneurs with far less burdensome residential addresses continue to rent post-office boxes in a wishful attempt at camouflaging the little secret that their daily commute is up or down a flight of stairs. Other transparent facades: appending a fictitious & Associates to one's surname, masking a spare-bedroom office as Suite 2B, and recording a message on the answering machine that says, "All our lines are currently busy."

Can you blame them?

Home, to corporate America, has traditionally been a business backwater, the domain of piano teachers, part-timers, and multilevel-marketing schemers--a location that has been demeaned by all those Earn Money at Home classified ads. "Ten years ago, if you were working out of your home, it was like you had some sort of disease," says Don Vlcek, a former vice-president at Domino's Pizza, who now works from his home, in Plymouth, Mich., advising companies on executive efficiency.

But a lot has changed in 10 years. Rather quietly, home-based businesses appear to be shedding their stigma. Many, indeed, are actually coming out--if not out of the closet (a converted walk-in, perhaps?), then certainly out of a spare bedroom or the basement. Chambers of commerce, long the clubby province of bankers and car dealers and downtown retailers, are warmly welcoming residentially based entrepreneurs into their ranks. In Mountain View, Calif., one in three new chamber members--and 10% of all members--are home-based. In Kirkland, Wash., the past chamber president, Teddy Overleese, operates her business from home.

"I probably run into more envy than scorn from the people I do business with," says Mike Ball, whose office, a former boathouse/garage in his walk-in basement, overlooks Whitmore Lake, near Ann Arbor, Mich.

The 46-year-old Ball in many ways epitomizes today's home-based entrepreneur, in that despite his business's success, he has decided to forgo the trappings of a typical business office. Ball started working at home seven years ago, when he bought back his ad agency from the larger company that had taken it over. He then restarted the agency at home as the Advertising Group, fully intending to get a "real office" when he had the time.

But when the time came, he asked himself, Why assume the monthly overhead of rent on a 2,000-square-foot office, which he would have to fill with a secretary/office manager, a production assistant, an art director, and perhaps an account executive--employees he'd have to pink-slip should business fluctuate? Like many home-based entrepreneurs, Ball decided to stay the course, sailing on with his virtual company and subcontracting work out to other home-based entrepreneurs. He communicates with them, and with his clients, by fax, E-mail, and a corporate Web site.

"The home office used to be simply a stage in growth for many businesses," observes Sandy Weinberg, professor of entrepreneurship at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, Pa. "Now there's less of a need for many to ever move out of the home."

Weinberg cites two major trends that have helped to legitimize working at home. One is the recent explosion in affordable and easy-to-use office technology. As a case in point: If Mary Ellen Bates, a researcher and consultant for libraries and Fortune 100 companies, is on the line when you call her Washington, D.C., home office, you won't hear a busy signal. You'll be automatically switched to voice mail, an inexpensive rollover feature that her phone company offers. She, too, has a Web site. So regardless of the facade, the good home office now rivals any corporate office for efficiency and professionalism. Says Bates, "Nobody feels I'm sitting here wearing bunny slippers and watching the soaps."

Moreover, not only has technology helped to level the playing field, but far more--and more prominent--players have joined in the game. "With downsizing so common, many former senior-level employees are now working out of their homes as consultants and heading start-ups," says Weinberg. And thanks to telecommuting, the ranks of work-at-home managers have swelled, making the practice of conducting business away from the office far more common.

And it no longer comes as a surprise to anyone that real business is getting done in home offices. Just ask Dave Brown, a former Chevy dealership manager, whose $1.3-million company, Mobility Transportation Services Inc., converts vans to make them wheelchair accessible. He contracts out the conversions but has three full-time employees working from his home in Canton, Mich. As for Mike Ball, whose ad agency grosses half a million dollars most years, about the only home-office stigma he's detected was self-imposed--and short-lived. When you first start to work at home, he says, "there's a tendency to feel you're somehow not as well regarded." But with a little success those feelings disappear.

As working at home becomes more commonplace, societal attitudes about it are changing. "Although I never lied, I used to be a lot more circumspect about telling people where I worked," says researcher Bates. "Now if I'm on the phone and my dog barks, I may say something like, 'My only office mate.' " More often than not, she notes, the response she gets is one of jealous curiosity, such as: "I've always wanted to do that. How do you like working from home?"

Amazing. In place of "Don't ask, don't tell," we've now got "Pray tell."

John Grossmann is the editor and publisher of NewsReach, a monthly small-business newsletter that is based in Mountain Lakes, N.J.

Published on: May 15, 1998