Home office in six days: integrating technology into your workspace. (includes related articles on home office equipment)
by Gregg Keizer
Dreams don't come cheap. But they can come true. You can give up that tiresome commute and telecompute instead, you can go into business for yourself, and you can work where most people relax. It just takes a lot of planning, a wealth of patience, and an enormous amount of courage to strike out on your own from home.
The ideal home office is a warm, secure space near the hearth that has everything corporate America depends on to communicate and compute. In the mind's eye, it's a high-tech island just a few feet from the kitchen and the kids, where you interact with customers and clients, make management decisions, and work hard at bringing in business.
Unfortunately, when it comes to setting up your own office, realities intrude. Your home office may be where you hang your hat, but it's probably not comparable to the efficient, productive workplace you've come to expect when working for others. Does it make sense that your home office won't live up to the standards of the corporate floor? After all, you don't have the resources - money, time, and people - that companies command.
Nonsense. Your home office can easily integrate the complete suite of modern business tools in a space tucked away behind the garage, up in the attic, or in a corner of your family room. Not just your computer, not just your phone, but everything else you need to match your downtown competition.
How long will it take to put together an efficient, integrated home office? Six days or six years. You can spend now (keep the bottom line fiercely in mind, but you'll have to face the fact that technology costs money), or you can spread it out and let your office grow as your income grows. Whatever direction and timetable you choose, assembling the integrated home office can be as simple as turning the pages of the calendar.
There Was the Computer
You have a computer in the house, so you're ahead of many home working beginners. In fact, it's probably working hard in your home office already. No need to add anything here, right?
Maybe. If you've got an IBM PC-compatible 286 or 386, your home office is perfectly able to handle most of today's chores. Working with a slower, older PC computer or any non-MS-DOS machine (Macintosh excepted - see "Macs Out?") means you're wasting time and probably missing out on software that would be perfect for your business.
For future home office expansion and integration, move to a 386 as soon as it's economically feasible. Sooner or later, you'll need a piece of software that won't take anything less than a 386. To save space in the typically confining home office, buy a small-footprint PC in a slimline case or a tower-style system that squats on the floor. Northgate makes both and backs them up with 24-hour technical support and overnight parts replacement - crucial criteria when you're working from home. An almost unknown company called EPS builds outstanding PCs, too. Its tower 386 25-MHz machine is a speed demon with name-brand components and should keep you computer-current for the next three years. But don't toss out that old PC or even hand it down to the kids. Use it in your office to free your main machine from time-consuming chores like printing form letters and invoices or sorting mailing lists. Connect your two computers with DeskLink, a simple two-computer network that lets you access files on either machine from either system. DeskLink's perfect for the home office, since it uses inexpensive telephone cable to connect the PCs; it also gets you ready for the day when you'll have help in your home office - a part-time clerk or assistant - since you can send short messages between the computers.
A laptop computer is indispensable if you work outside your office or want to make money when you're on vacation. Integrating on-the-road work with office-bound duties requires a portable computer nearly as powerful as the one at home. You can't do much better than the ZEOS Notebook 286, a seven-pound laptop that doesn't force you to compromise your work habits while on the road. Connecting the laptop to your desktop is another job for DeskLink, though the less-expensive LapLink III works fine for simply sending files from the laptop to the desktop and back.
Home office computer integration should start inside the machine, so invest in a graphical interface: Windows 3.0 works best on a 386 with a lot of RAM and has the backing of almost every name in the PC software community. Geo Works Ensemble runs on even the oldest, slowest PC and does a lot of things Windows hasn't yet figured out, but for the moment it lacks support from other developers.
And the Lines Were Open
Strip your home office of communications, and it's just another spare bedroom with a computer. To reach your customers, to take orders and buy products, to sell your clients on the quality of your services and then see the projects through, you must have the same lines of communications at home as you did in your pinstripe days.
Start with your phone. One line is enough for most home offices and many home-based businesses, what with the high-tech options now available from the phone company and others. Unless your business requires a listing in the Yellow Pages, stick with a residential line - its monthly fee costs roughly half as much as a business line. The telephoned company service called call waiting effectively doubles your single line, telling you when you've got another incoming call; most call-waiting services can be temporarily turned off so that your telecommunications calls aren't disrupted. Another service, one that goes by the names ring alert, distinctive ring, and similar names, actually adds another phone number to your line and then rings different sequences for each number. Use it to separate your business and personal calls with only a moderate increase in your monthly bill. To separate incoming calls to phone, fax, and modern try the Switch Model A5.
If your business depends on the phone, buy a reliable, single-line phone like Radio Shack's DuoPhone-183. Its speaker phone comes in handy when you're on hold - just listen in while you keep working. And though memory-dialing phone features are important, don't bother with them if your computer dials numbers for you from a contact-manager program like Act! 2.0. Partner your phone line and phone with a quality answering machine to make sure business doesn't slip through your fingers. A machine like the AT & T 1323 Answering System has it all, from message time-and-date stamping to remote message retrieval from any touch-tone phone.
You may be able to get along without a fax machine temporarily and make do by sending and receiving faxes from your local copy shop (for $2-$5 per page), but that time-consuming and expensive process will soon convince you to buy your own fax. For the ultimate in-home office fax integration, install Intel's new SatisFAXtion fax board in your PC. It turns your computer into a fast fax machine that sends and receives fax messages in the background, without slowing down your other PC work (the board also includes a 2400-bps modem for telecomputing).
The new line on communication - electronic mail - beats using an express service or even the fax machine if you're sending long documents created on your PC. For just $10 a month, you can send 40 electronic messages (or even faxes) on MCI Mail, the leading electronic mail service. Don't worry if the people you want to contact don't have an MCI Mail mailbox; you can reach any of the over half-million CompuServe subscribers through MCI Mail, too. All you need is a modem and your PC. The ZOOM 2400 modem is one of the least expensive and most widely available from mail-order companies.
Let It Go Out Good
You can easily fool people into thinking that your home office is as professional as anything in a corporate tower simply by paying attention to what leaves your desk and how it arrives on your customers' desks.
Start with your business cards and stationery. For around $500 you can have professionally designed two-color cards, letterhead, and envelopes. The cost may seem steep, but the long-term benefit - higher rates for your services because you attract higher quality clients - makes it an excellent investment. First impressions are always important.
Back up that good-looking letterhead with laser-printed correspondence. It's a buyer's market right now, so shop around for a perfect laser printer. Though the HP LaserJet IIP is the most affordable and available personal printer, often going for as little as $800, if you're doing any desktop publishing (or think you may be in the future), pick up a Texas Instruments microLaser PS35 or a QMS-PS 410 PostScript printer instead. Both not only emulate the HP LaserJet series, but they also pump out PostScript output from such to-ranking software as Aldus PageMaker and Ventura Publisher.
A budget-minded alternative, the Citizen GSX-140 24-pin dot-matrix printer, handles home office documents and correspondence nearly as well as a laser printer. Its color option is interesting, but you'll be hard-pressed to find many applications for color printing unless your business offers design or presentation services. Still, it makes an acceptable stopgap while you're saving up for a laser.
If you have more than one PC in your office, hook up your printer to each computer. That's easy - and inexpensive - with something like SimpLAN SNAP, a printer network that uses snap-in modules and telephonelike cable to connect everything. You print normally from any PC (up to 16 computers can be linked to a single printer). You don't get any extras like print spooling with Snap, but for most home offices, it's a great way to save money by using one printer with several PCs.
It would be nice if that expensive laser printer, which shares many components with a copier, could serve double duty. Though you can jury-rig a system that uses a scanner to scan in art or text and then print it on the laser printer using a special double-ended cable, you're much better off with a stand-alone copier. Small-sized, limited-function personal copiers - the heavily discounted Canon PC-1 is a great example - keep you in your office, not in the car heading for the copy shop. Remember, too, that the modern office often pairs the fax and copy machine. You duplicate pages you want to fax (rather than rip them out of the newspaper or magazine) and copy faxes you receive for permanent filing on plain paper (because fax paper fades rapidly).
Perfect Incoming, Too
Your home office can communicate all it wants, but if it's just one-way conversation, you'll get nowhere. You must have competitive, inexpensive ways for people to send messages and parcels to you and your business.
Many home-based businesses operate by receiving packages, buying products through mail order, and then reselling them locally. A simple way to ensure that you receive everything promptly is to have a post office box. Rent the smallest size to start - packages are retrieved for you, not jammed into the box.
You'll probably send rush letters or packages from time to time, so it makes sense to settle on one express service, if only to simplify your accounting and keep tabs on your costs. All express services let you set up an account and provide you with preprinted shipping forms, then bill you directly or through a credit card (the former is smarter, since you can track individual shipments on the express service's invoice). Once you have an account, tell your most important customers and clients to charge it to that account when they express material to you. Just remember to figure such costs into your overhead when you set your rates or itemize them on your own invoices.
Make sure you establish a drop-off procedure with every express or shipping service that comes to your home so that packages will be left for you when you're out. Though an at-home neighbor works well, it's best if the driver can leave packages in a protected, covered area, such as a garage or back porch. You'll have to sign an agreement with each service, taking responsibility for any packages left.
Toll-free telephone service is an-other mark of a major player, but your home office can compete here, too. If you're selling products by mail order from your home office, you may want an 800 service that takes calls, verifies credit cards, and then sends you the orders (and even mailing labels) daily. Such services don't come cheap - they can cost anywhere from $1.00-$2.00 per order - but they're convenient, even necessary, if you don't have the phone and personnel infrastructure. For more limited toll-free service, check out MCI's new Personal 800 plan, which adds $2.00 a month to your long-distance bill, then tacks on $0.25/minute for incoming toll-free calls. Callers simply dial the 800 area code, then your number, then the four-digit access code you've provided. This way you restrict who calls in on the 800 number while still making it easy for clients and customers to call you anytime, from anywhere.
Then There Was Light
Finishing off your office can take years. That's the beauty of working at home - you expand your space only when you need it. Integrating that expansion with the rest of your plans, though, takes some preplanning. Here are some important points to keep in mind as your home becomes your home office.
Room to grow. Wherever you decide to locate your home office, it won't be big enough six months down the road. If possible, start by occupying a small portion of a larger space; then expand as necessary. Attic, basement, sun porch, or garage space is ideal for this, If your room is limited and you can't physically expand your home office, get more into that limited space by moving things up, down, or out of the way. Accessories such as monitor arms, floor CPU stands, compact workstations, and printer carousels can pack your office with equipment without making it seem crowded. Curtis and MicroComputer Accessories are two accessory makers that have almost everything you'll need. (Curtis offers free of charge a publication full of design ideas. The title is Design Ideas for Your Home Office. The address can be found in "Product Information.")
Power up. You never have enough outlets in your office, either. As you create your office space or remodel an existing space, plan for future power consumption - four to six double-outlet boxes on one 20-amp circuit should suffice for the average home office (excluding air conditioning and/or heating), even when it's burdened by a computer, fax, and laser printer. Line protectors for power and fax, such as those in the Brooks Power Systems Surge Stopper series, dissipate surges. This becomes necessary when your office shares power with the rest of the house. Uninterrupted power may mean the difference between business life and death, so think hard about some power insurance - Dakota Microsystems' PowerSave 500 plugs into an empty slot inside your PC and automatically kicks in when the power goes off, saving all your work and shutting down your computer (there's special model for 386-based machines).
Support yourself. When you work from a home office, you're on your own in more ways than one. Technical support is your responsibility now, so stock up on diagnostic and file/ hard disk drive repair software. PC Tools Deluxe bundles an excellent backup program with several programs for file recovery and disk drive enhancement. Make technical support a criterion when you shop for computers, printers, telephone, fax, and copiers; then use it, even if it's not toll-free. For more general advice, connect with other home office workers, preferably people who have worked at home longer than you. An ideal place to find other work-at-home professionals is on almost any of the online services, from CompuServe to low-cost services like GEnie and Prodigy.
Little Rest at Home
The advantages of your home office may seem overwhelming to an outsider who sees only the freedom and flexibility of self-employment. You know different, or should. Home workers toil longer weeks - about 25 percent longer on the average.
The reason for the long hours isn't only that home workers are better motivated (though they generally are, since financial survival is at stake), but that they have to do nearly everything from the technical to the menial for themselves.
That's one reason why today's home office has to be as well equipped, if not better equipped, than the typical corporate office. You're spending so much of your time managing the business that any timesaver, any productivity booster, any image enhancer is not so much a luxury as a necessity. You'll find yourself searching for new ideas.
Each new technology, integrated into the base system of computer and phone, must meet only one requirement: It must improve your bottom line. All the tips and technologies in this six-day home office construction kit are designed to meet this requirement.
You can create an office in your home that matches anything you had in your 9-to-5 life. The technology is here, and the services are at your disposal to turn any room in your house into an office.
Why not use the technology to get a jump on the rest of the business world and beat a path straight back to your home? You can make that dream come true.